The San Diego Chargers need help on the offensive line. Jared Gaither is great when he is healthy and motivated, but when that will be no one knows. Jeromey Clary hasn’t had a good year in the last few years. Nick Hardwick is now a below-average center and continues to look good only in comparison to the rest of the offensive line.
Remaking the offensive line is not something that can be done overnight. The Chargers will likely start by finding a franchise left tackle while creating competition at some of the other positions. The salary cap also comes into play when it comes to what players will be on the team in 2013.
The Chargers will draft 11th overall in the first round, which means that they will likely be drafting too low to nab the top left tackle in the draft, Luke Joeckel. They might not even have the opportunity to grab Eric Fisher with the way his draft stock is soaring.
If Joeckel and Fisher are both off the board by the time the Chargers pick, the best offensive tackle prospect will be Lane Johnson out of the University of Oklahoma. He stands 6’6” tall and weighs in at over 300 pounds. Johnson has only been playing offensive tackle for two years; his first season playing left tackle was his senior year.
As a former quarterback and tight end, some have compared Johnson to San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. ProFootballFocus graded Staley as the top tackle in the NFL in 2012. Since Fisher is now pushing Joeckel to be the top offensive tackle, Johnson could be San Diego’s best option.
Johnson could be the general manager Tom Telesco’s last chance to draft a left tackle as the remaining prospects are believed to be right tackles at the NFL level. Considering the team is still invested in Gaither, signing a free-agent left tackle seems like the wrong way to go.
Gaither will cost the Chargers $6.5 million in 2013 against the salary cap if he’s on the team and $6 million if the team decides to release him according to spotrac.com. The Chargers would save $4.5 million real dollars (Gaither’s base salary), but would actually take a $1.5 million cap hit to release Gaither.
The Chargers may not lock themselves into drafting a tackle, but there has to be heavy consideration to do so. The two things Phillip Rivers needs to be successful are pass protection and a solid supporting cast. The Chargers are only going to go as far as Phillip Rivers will take them.
The Case for Johnson
Johnson may only have a year of experience at left tackle, but Oklahoma wasn’t afraid to move him around to take on the opposing team’s best defensive end.
When the Sooners played Texas, Johnson flipped to the right side to block Alex Okafor, who is one of the top defensive end prospects in the country.
Johnson also took care of business against Damontre Moore, who projects to go even higher than Okafor in the upcoming draft.
Johnson’s athleticism is rare in an offensive tackle, and he can add even more weight to his frame. Johnson also has 35” arms, which could end up being the longest of the top left-tackle prospects. From the standpoint of measurables, Johnson looks the part with massive upside and all the traits NFL teams love.
The Case against Johnson
Perhaps the biggest knock on Johnson is that he’s still learning. Johnson has been playing offensive tackle for just two seasons and spent his first season on the left side in 2012.
Johnson still needs to refine his hand placement, and he’s still learning how to use his athletic ability to neutralize an opponent who rips hard to the inside. Johnson also has a tendency to bend at the waist instead of his knees.
Being 6’6” tall, bending at the waist could impact his ability to get leverage in the NFL in the run game. Johnson probably has the most work to do as a run-blocker overall. Johnson plays with a nasty demeanor; by adding weight and refining his technique he should be able to correct this area of his game.
The biggest case against Johnson is actually just a case for drafting another position. When the Chargers are on the clock, Johnson may not be the best player remaining on the Chargers’ draft board. If a No. 1 cornerback or a top pass-rusher is available, the Chargers might opt to pass on a tackle in the first round and hope to snag a player like David Bakhtiari in the second round.