A HEFTY HEIST
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
If ever there were a free agent who embodied the axiom "Behind every great fortune is a great crime," it's Orlando Franklin. On March 10, the first day of the hot-stove season, the Chargers signed the combo offensive lineman to a five-year, $35.5 million contract ($15.5 million guaranteed) that effectively robbed the Broncos, their divisional overlords, of arguably their most promising young blocker. Still, as pro football boardroom dramas go, this business didn't quite rise to the level of, say, Darrelle Revis's Jets sequel. Why?
Well, for starters, Franklin hasn't won a Super Bowl yet—although he did play in the 48th edition, the most significant of his 70 career starts to date. And it was Franklin, not the Chargers, who set this transaction in motion. He not only snubbed Denver, the franchise that plucked him from Miami in the second round of the 2011 draft, but he also brushed off a handful of other teams that were prepared to make the 27-year-old an even richer man.
But Franklin had a bigger motive for bolting to SoCal than money or revenge: He wanted to reunite with another Broncos émigré, third-year coach Mike McCoy, the Denver offensive coordinator during Franklin's first two NFL seasons. It shouldn't take Franklin long to absorb the Chargers' line philosophy, which like the Broncos', favors quick-drop protection on passing downs and a zone blocking scheme in the run game. His alloy of size (6'7", 320 pounds) and quickness is another advantage he has over would-be tacklers. But sometimes—as evidenced by Franklin's 10 penalties, tied for fifth most among league O-linemen—he relies on athleticism more than proper technique.
No surprise, then, that getting Franklin to grab less and push more would become a teaching point of emphasis in training camp. When he's on form (squaring his shoulders, flaring out his arms and getting his hands inside his blocking target), there are few more devastating players at left guard or right tackle. He will start the season at left guard, and his inside-out versatility should boost a Chargers line that was all but undone by the sudden injury-related retirements this off-season of Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick and guard Jeromey Clary. If it hadn't been for the play of King Dunlap, San Diego's tall and rangy left tackle, the line might have fallen to pieces altogether. (Hence the urgency to re-up the seventh-year vet this off-season for four more years at $28 million.)
Franklin's deceptive quickness, which is most obvious on off-tackle runs, where he cuts through the open field like a combine harvester, adds a dimension to a San Diego ground game that ended the 2014 season in third-to-last place in yards per game (85.4) and in a three-way tie for second-to-last place in touchdowns (six). Even taking into account injuries to running backs Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown, who missed a combined 26 games, these are troubling statistics for a team that prided itself for the better part of the previous 15 years on its ability to control the clock. This is the reason the Chargers addressed their run game in the draft, trading up to No. 15 (from 17, swapping with the 49ers) to select Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the reigning FBS rushing leader and presumptive heir to the oft-injured Mathews (now with the Eagles). Franklin looks forward to blocking for Gordon. "Anytime you come into a system and know you'll have the opportunity to run the ball," Franklin says, "it's definitely an exciting time."
On passing plays Franklin is poised to be as great a force. His intuitive understanding of McCoy's playbook takes a load off 12th-year quarterback Philip Rivers, who recently signed a four-year contract extension. He will have enough on his plate trying to assimilate two free-agent targets—Stevie Johnson (late of the Niners) and Jacoby Jones (Ravens)—who figure to see plenty of action while tight end Antonio Gates is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy. (Gates, thinking his positive might've come from a supplement or "holistic medicines," didn't challenge the penalty.) But, really, the thing to love about Franklin is his years of experience in practice against a Broncos pass rush that has sacked Rivers 16 times in their last six regular-season meetings. San Diego won just one of those games.
If Franklin can swing the balance between these division rivals, he will truly be a steal.
SI'S PREDICTION: 8--8
ANDY BENOIT ON THE CHARGERS' BRILLIANT DESIGNS
If you live outside Southern California and have heard of John Pagano, you probably know him as "Chuck's younger brother." But around the NFL, Pagano is regarded as one of the most difficult defensive coordinators to play against. Few coaches are more likely to call just the right coverage disguise with just the right rotation at just the right time than the 48-year-old. Pagano does a fantastic job at tinkering with his base 3--4 zone's coverages to adjust for his opponent's tendencies. It helps that Pagano has at his disposal three-time Pro Bowler Eric Weddle (above), the most versatile, and maybe most intelligent, safety in the game. Weddle, who does much in the way of presnap disguises, is not often part of Pagano's blitz packages, but those, too, can be aggressive and creative. That said, Pagano's tricks did not lead to enough big plays in '14 for this defense, which was riddled by injuries. Though the unit finished ninth in the NFL in yardage allowed, the Chargers had just seven interceptions (tied for fourth fewest in the league) and 26 sacks (fourth fewest), both well below San Diego's norms since Pagano became coordinator in '12. He does not have a deep group, but he has young talent at all three levels. If his men stay healthy, expect better results in 2015.