If the San Diego Chargers had played better defense throughout the year, it’s not out of the realm of possibility they could be the team in New Jersey this week instead of the Denver Broncos. Because of that obvious downside and the just as obvious success of the offense, the prevailing sentiment heading into the offseason is San Diego needs to address those issues in the draft and free agency. It’s not a wrong assessment and just a little improvement on the defensive side of the ball can make the Chargers serious contenders in the AFC. There’s plenty of time to ponder the additions for the defense in both free agency and the draft, but for now and for the sake of hypotheticals, let’s think outside the box for a moment to assess a possibility early in the draft.
After a slightly down year in 2012, quarterback Philip Rivers bounced back to performing like one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL in 2013. The improvement was enough to earn him Comeback Player of the Year honors, even though the only thing he was technically coming back from was Norv Turner. Either way, Rivers was 32 years old this past season, which would make him 33 next season. As we look at the quarterback aging curve complied by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats, there’s no magic age when quarterbacks can’t perform anymore, but one of the steepest declines in QBs with five or more years as a starter is from ages 32 to 33. This isn’t suggesting Rivers is all of a sudden somehow going to be terrible next season, but it is safe to assume we’ve seen the beginning of Rivers’ peak already. More data from Burke’s study shows even though there is no time to predict a quarterback’s drop off, one day it will just come. It’s unlikely that comes next season for Rivers, but that doesn’t mean the Chargers can’t start preparing for when that day or season inevitably comes.
From now until the draft, we will hear plenty about the pros and cons for each quarterback prospect. There’s enough being said by team or league “sources” about each quarterback that it’s impossible to interpret what is fact and what is a smokescreen. What is possible is one of the top quarterbacks slides down on draft day and is still available when the Chargers are set to pick at No. 25. In no way should San Diego be actively looking for a QB in the first round, but if one falls to them it could be worth taking that player and filling needs later.
At pick 25, there will likely be one of the top cornerbacks available, which is San Diego’s biggest weakness and the position most mock drafts will have the Chargers selecting with their first round pick. Later in the offseason as the draft and free agency draw closer, I’ll take a look at some numbers behind the decision of taking a corner in the first round or adding one in free agency that could hint to what should be done with the pick. Basing decisions strictly on need is a dangerous proposition in the draft and could lead to situations like trading up in the second round for Manti Te’o when Kiko Alonso is selected one pick later (and Kevin Minter is selected with the pick the Chargers traded out of). That’s not to say the Te’o is a bad draft pick, it’s much too early to judge something like that, but the opportunity cost an added pick when either Minter or Alonso might have been beneficial.
Say the draft starts to play out and a player like Derek Carr from Fresno State is still on the board. This doesn’t have to pertain to Carr specifically, but let’s use him as the example. Carr was an efficient passer in college coming from a system that puts an emphasis on screens and slants, but could benefit from sitting and learning for a few years before becoming a starter in the NFL. It’s the same thing Rivers did when entering the league, sitting behind Drew Brees in 2004 and 2005 before taking over as the starter in 2006 when Brees’ contract expired — and Rivers was the No. 4 overall pick. Selecting a quarterback and allowing him to develop behind Rivers could be beneficial to all parties involved. The young quarterbacks who can come in and start immediately like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are the exception to the rule even as NFL offenses become more quarterback friendly. For every Luck there’s a Geno Smith who would have been better off sitting for at least a year before becoming a starter. It would be counterproductive to believe a quarterback will be available, or the Chargers will be in a position to take one, when the team will need to find the replacement.
Considering Rivers’ durability — he’s never missed a start since 2006 — and the expiring contract of Charlie Whitehurst, bringing in a young quarterback to learn would not take up an additional roster spot for someone who isn’t going to play. Rivers likely still has at least a few more good seasons in him, but it isn’t too early to start thinking about a contingency plan. San Diego shouldn’t actively look for a quarterback in the draft, but if one ends up falling in their lap, making that pick wouldn’t be as crazy as you may think. With the possibility of a larger window of contention, preparing for the future at the most important position could end up being the best thing for the franchise.
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Metzelaars is the right choice for San Diego.