Chargers put themselves in playoff contention with revamped offensive line

Al Bello

The Chargers made a grand effort to build a viable offensive line this offseason. Will it be enough to take them back to the playoffs?

The San Diego Chargers' offensive line was a disaster in 2012. What was expected to be a strong running game finished 27th out of 32 teams last season, and Philip Rivers took more sacks than any quarterback other than Aaron Rodgers due largely to injuries and dysfunction up front. Jared Gaither was expected to anchor the offensive line at left tackle, but he appeared in just four games due to a litany of injuries that may or may not have been real. He was released unceremoniously this past March.

Unsurprisingly, the team has been busy this offseason shoring up the offensive line. On Tuesday, the Chargers signed Max Starks away from Pittsburgh to compete with another offseason acquisition, King Dunlap, for the starting job at left tackle. The Chargers also drafted Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft this past April.

At one point last season, the Chargers had an undrafted rookie free agent (Michael Harris) and a practice squad signee (Kevin Haslam) starting along the line. There is good reason to expect improvement. Whether it's enough to take the Chargers back to the playoffs is another question.

The projected two-deep

LT1: Max Starks
LT2: King Dunlap

LG1: Chad Rinehart
LG2: Rich Ohrnberger

C1: Nick Hardwick
C2: Colin Baxter

RG1: Jeromey Clary
RG2: Steve Schilling

RT1: D.J. Fluker
RT2: Brandyn Dombrowski

There will be a very real battle throughout training camp between Starks and Dunlap for the starting spot at left tackle. Starks has more experience, but both are capable, if slightly immobile, pass protectors. Dunlap graded out as the 21st best pass blocker in the league with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Starks was just 64th, but he may have a leg up on seeing the field based on longevity. Neither player is much of a run blocker, but when your quarterback just got sacked 49 times, a stop-gap protector is a luxury.

More importantly, there is depth. Unlike when Gaither went down and the Chargers had to resort to Harris at left tackle, both men on the current two-deep have spent several years in the NFL and are considered steady players. Starks may not have the explosion he had before tearing his ACL in 2011, and Dunlap may be too damn big at 6'9, 330 pounds to get out to the second level, but both know how to take a step back and protect.

On the right side of the line, however, is a pure road grader. Fluker wasn't the most popular pick in San Diego at the time, but few scouts had him falling far after the top 10 picks. He is a pure run blocker, with the bulk (6'5, 339 pounds) and strength to quickly improve the Chargers' ground game. The initial backlash against the pick may have had something to do with the team's uncertain future at left tackle, and the fact that Fluker isn't well-regarded for his pass blocking. Now that the left side has been shored up for the short-term, Fluker will hopefully make a seamless transition to the next level.

On the interior of the line is Jeromey Clary, last year's starter at right tackle, who should be able to kick inside to guard where he may be more comfortable. That leaves potential weak spots at left guard and center. Neither Rinehart nor Ohrnberger have ever been regular starters in the NFL, and Nick Hardwick did not grade out particularly well at center last season.

The upshot

Given what the team dealt with last year, the prospects for the offensive line -- and the entire offense, as a result -- look much better next season. That isn't to say that the Chargers will have one of the best lines in the league, but on paper they are at least competent at three out of the five positions, with much-needed stability at left tackle.

Rivers was sacked six times in a 16-13 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens last season. He lost a fumble and Ryan Mathews managed just 47 yards rushing in a 30-23 loss to the Denver Broncos. That's two close, marquee losses that could have swung the other way with better line play, and potentially changed the complexion of the season in the process. The Chargers still have plenty of other areas to fix, but by fielding a serviceable offensive line they should be that much closer to playing in January.

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