COMMENTARY | Offensive line support is the most pressing offseason need facing new San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco. One of the deepest and most talented offensive line classes in recent memory highlights the 2013 NFL draft, and that gives Telesco no shortage of options with San Diego's No. 11 selection.
Options also mean decisions, and Telesco faces some big ones - literally. New offensive line coach Joe D'Allesandris brings with him a new blocking philosophy that should greatly improve what was San Diego's most glaring weakness.
Using D'Allesandris' zone blocking scheme, the Buffalo Bills ranked No. 10 in the NFL with just 30 sacks allowed. Buffalo was also the No. 6 rushing offense in 2012.
The system can similarly work for San Diego, but needs the right personnel.
Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson is the most obvious choice, but transitioning from the Sooners' spread offense to D'Allesandris' zone blocking scheme could present a steep learning curve.
Johnson has a track record for adapting quickly, though. A proven athlete, he transitioned to the offensive line after a junior college season at tight end, and a prep career playing quarterback. Johnson packed on over 100 pounds of mass between his Groveton (Tx.) High School days and entering the 2013 NFL draft.
Still, at 303 pounds and coming from the spread, Johnson is a finesse prospect. Should San Diego opt for a different path, Alabama's D.J. Fluker presents a sizeable option.
Fluker was an All-America selection in 2012 and helped anchor one of the best college lines ever from the right tackle position. Per his bio on the official UA athletic website, Fluker graded a 98.6 percent on assignments in 2012, with just two penalties.
UA head coach Nick Saban has built a veritable NFL factor in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Playing in Saban's pro-style offense is preparation enough for Fluker, but the redshirt junior has 36 career starts in the very system San Diego is now likely to take on.
The BCS championship-winning Crimson Tide employed a zone blocking scheme, similar to D'Allesandris'. UA rushed for nearly 3200 yards at 5.59 per carry, with a pair of backs going over 1,000 yards. Such balance put quarterback A.J. McCarron in position to make plays, but not force plays.
McCarron finished 2012 with 2933 yards on 314 pass attempts, 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Moreover, he was sacked just 23 times.
Quarterback Philip Rivers suffered a dramatic regression in the 2012 season, but was among the most sacked in the league. The Charger line surrendered 49 - more than all but three teams.
Protection is vital to any quarterback's success, but Rivers particularly needs time to throw. Pro Football Focus reports his quarterback rating fell nearly 40 points when holding the ball over 2.5 seconds.
Rivers is unlikely to return to the elite levels he reached from 2007 to 2009, but a less porous front and play calling designed to put the quarterback in more favorable passing situations should help him rebound in 2013.
San Diego was among the league's least rushing teams at 411 teams, and only Arizona had a lower yard per carry output. While injury to feature back Ryan Mathews contributed to the Chargers' running woes, they have consistently struggled to balance the rush and pass.
It started at the line, and two turns of fate last off-season exacerbated the problem.
The unexpected retirement of Marcus McNeill forced the previous leadership of the organization's hand with the signing of Jared Gaither. An injury -- and controversy -- plagued season kept Gaither from contributing, and remains a lingering question mark for the Chargers' new regime.
McCoy told U-T San Diego every Charger had a clean slate; that includes Gaither, who has three years remaining on his $24.6 million, four-year contract. He is commanding money that requires him to be on the field if available. That's at left tackle, which means the Chargers' first round pick must be able to step in on the right side.
Johnson, like Fluker, has right tackle experience. Johnson played on each side while at OU, so his versatility could make him an insurance policy if the Gaither experiment once again goes bust.
The ideal situation is Johnson lasting to No. 11, and Fluker falling to the Chargers' second round pick at No. 45 in a situation similar to the franchise's acquisition of McNeill.
Fluker is almost identical to McNeill physically, standing 6-foot-6 and tipping the scale at a massive 335 pounds - McNeill stood 6-foot-7 and around 340 pounds. Both entered the draft with lingering health issues, albeit Fluker's calf and groin problems are not as serious as the spinal concerns that dropped McNeill to No. 50.
Though McNeill's career was truncated, his contributions to the Charger offense were invaluable. He was a two-time Pro Bowler and Rookie of the Year candidate in 2006. The 2013 Chargers need a similar, immediate impact from their offensive line additions. Fluker is certainly worth a look.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist and blogger. He covers the University of Arizona for the Rivals.com network site GoAZCATS.com, and is the founder/managing editor of the college football site SaturdayBlitz.com. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.
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