LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — The Los Angeles Chargers’ 2019 season left a lot to be desired, and the team hopes the moves it’s making in free agency can make the 2020 season look more like the 2018 season.
Signing free agent right tackle Bryan Bulaga from the Green Bay Packers to a three-year $30 million deal is a step in the right direction.
Enduring injuries and holdouts, the Bolts struggled to a 3-5 start last season, but seemed poised to put things together once playmakers returned to the field. It didn’t work out that way. Even with more personnel in place, the team crawled to a 5-11 finish, fourth in the AFC West. The only saving grace of this last-place finish was that nine of the 11 losses came by no more than seven points. Such narrow margins suggest a winning season was well within reach.
That view may just be a pipe dream. The division wasn’t at all competitive, with the Kansas City Chiefs coasting into the playoffs and powering their way to a Super Bowl title. The changes in Los Angeles this offseason have been significant. Philip Rivers, the face of the franchise since 2004, is gone. So too is Melvin Gordon, the star running back who held out early last season and failed to deliver upon returning in Week 5. Still, as free agency continues, the Chargers don’t seem to be rebuilding so much as retooling.
The Chargers averaged only 21.1 points per game, in the bottom half of NFL teams, even while averaging 367.4 yards, 10th in the NFL. Rivers’ 20 interceptions and Gordon’s 3.78 yards per carry didn’t help matters. But Rivers and Gordon’s so-so seasons aren’t solely to blame for the Chargers winning seven fewer games than in 2018.
The team’s needs grew more obvious as the losses pile up, and they were most glaring along the offensive line. Left tackle Russell Okung missed much of the season due to a pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots. Center Mike Pouncey‘s season ended after a neck injury in Week 5. And young guard Forrest Lamp joined both of them on injured reserve two weeks later with a broken ankle.
Bulaga, who played in all 16 games last season, should provide a little more stability along the offensive front. The 6’5″, 314-pound tackle has had injury issues from time to time but has played at least 12 games in seven of his 10 seasons with Green Bay. And he’s done it in the NFC North, against some of the fiercest pass rushers in the NFL. Last season that included the Chicago Bears’ Khalil Mack and the Minnesota Vikings’ Danielle Hunter.
The Packers drafted Bulaga out of Iowa with the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2010 draft. The top prospect has benefitted from protecting legendary quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who knows how to elude pass rushers and get rid of the ball quickly. But it’s fair to say that Rodgers — not to mention running back Aaron Jones, who racked up over 1500 yards from scrimmage last season — has benefitted from playing behind Bulaga. The new Chargers right tackle only allowed four sacks all last season and committed only six penalties. Despite never making a Pro Bowl, Bulaga routinely rates among the best tackles in the League in both run blocking and pass protecting.
The Chargers look increasingly likely to pick Rivers’ replacement with the sixth pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Experts see Justin Herbert out of Oregon or Tua Tagovailoa out of Alabama as strong possibilities. Whoever ends up under center next season will benefit from the addition of Bulaga. (Improved health across the offensive line in general will certainly pay dividends as well.) And better offensive line play should hasten the Chargers’ turnaround. This team has more talent, even with recent departures, than most five-win teams.