April is one of the busiest months in the NFL, culminating with the league's signature offseason event – the NFL Draft. The Chargers own eight picks this year, highlighted by the third overall selection.
However, as draft season reaches a fever pitch, let's take a closer look at some moves the Bolts made in March. General Manager Tom Telesco is pleased with how free agency played out as the team signed a total of 13 players, including five new additions.
"The heavy phase of free agency has passed, but in reality it never ends as through April, May, June and July there are still players available we constantly talk about internally," he said. "But we are happy with how it went. Free agency is not like the draft, where you have a huge pool of players to choose from. In free agency there's a very small pool as far as who is available and who fits what you do. There were a lot of factors that go into who you sign, but we were happy with who we brought in and happy with who we brought back."
While the majority of new additions came on the defensive side of the ball, six of the eight players the team retained came on offense. The first move the Bolts made was re-signing right tackle Joe Barksdale, who is one of three offensive linemen from last season the team brought back (Chris Hairston, Kenny Wiggins).
The Chargers know they must get improved play along the offensive line in 2016 as they struggled statistically in a number of categories. The offense ranked last in the league in yards per carry (3.5), 31st in total rushing yards (1,358) and surrendered the 12th most total sacks (40).
However, statistics can sometimes be misleading as a deeper dive beyond the surface reveals why the team is confident they will rebound next season with many of the same offensive linemen. For instance, while the Bolts gave up the 12th most sacks last season, their 707 attempts were the most of any team. Philip Rivers was sacked on only 5.66% of drop backs, which was less than quarterbacks operating in pass heavy offenses such as Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and more.
"We protected Philip well last year," Telesco said. "We'd like to protect him better, but we were in the top half of the league and did that with 10 or 11 different linemen. Joe Barksdale was our most consistent offensive lineman last year, and Chris Hairston came in and was valuable. He played four spots along the offensive line for us, including left tackle. He stepped in and played good football, is tough and gave us everything he had. So we were very happy to get those guys back."
When it comes to pounding the rock, Telesco explained the team needs to get better overall. However, the Chargers had some success in a few key areas, including short yardage situations. They ranked seventh in the league when running the ball in 3rd-and-2 or less, converting 21-of-28 attempts (75%). They also converted 70.4% of the time when running on 2nd-and-2 or less, and averaged 3.47 yards rushing up the middle, which ranked 12th.
The Bolts also ranked last in the league with only four rushing touchdowns while rookie Melvin Gordon did not find pay dirt. However, they did not have many opportunities to establish that part of their repertoire, running the ball just 33% of the time in the red zone. Conversely, thanks to their success through the air inside the 20, Philip Rivers ranked seventh in the NFL with 22 touchdown passes. When they did decide to run the rock, the Bolts gave the ball to Danny Woodhead, which limited Gordon's opportunities.
"When it comes to the offensive line, we know we have some improvements to make there," Telesco acknowledged. "But there were some good things we did too, especially with the amount of players that had to play. Our run game overall has to get better, but we ranked in the top half of the league in most short yardage situations. While we did well there, our overall run game was not nearly good enough. It has to get better. With a new offensive coordinator, new tight ends coach and two new offensive line coaches, we feel this gives us a fresh new look at the run game."
While the Chargers retained three pending free agents along the offensive line, they only brought back one of their four tight ends whose contract expired. The team re-signed Antonio Gates to a two-year contract on the first day of free agency while Ladarius Green opted to join the Pittsburgh Steelers. David Johnson and John Phillips remain on the free agent market. As a result, Telesco admitted the team is still looking to add to their TE corps.
"We would have liked to have kept Ladarius, but it just didn't work out. He is going to a really good situation in Pittsburgh with Heath Miller retiring, and he will probably step in as the number one guy for them. But there were only a small amount of tight ends available in free agency this year, and a lot of them re-signed with their own teams. It's only early April and we open up the weekend after Labor Day. There is not a single team in the league who has their roster set right now. There is no team that looks at their roster right now and says they are ready to play opening day. Tight end is a position we know we still need to do some work with, but we have plenty of time to get that done."