Over the coming weeks, I will be performing an analysis of each position group on the Chargers roster. The goal is to break down each group and see how each player faired in 2019. This will help to determine which players should be resigned, which positions need to be upgraded via free agency, or the draft, and potential contract extensions for the many players entering their prime. I am pushing for a goal date of March 6th, prior to the start of free agency. Free agency begins March 11th for negotiating, and players may enter into contracts on March 13th, the start of the new league year. This will provide me a week to look at potential free agents the Chargers should resign, and targets to upgrade their own team.
Denzel Perryman is the “Thumper” who played next to Thomas Davis for most of the year. I think he is a decent player playing in the wrong scheme. He is a true middle linebacker that would be better suited in an attacking 4-3 or 3-4, that focuses on pressure from Sam/ Will/ outside Linebacker positions, and with heavy gap assignment. He is a run first defender who is a bit of a liability in pass coverage. Part of that is his slow reaction in changes from looking in the back field on play action, to getting to his zone. Looking at his tape, he doesn’t seem to move his head toward players entering and leaving his zone. There is no swivel, and he solely relies on looking at the quarterback’s eyes in pass-coverage. There isn’t much awareness of route-runners around him.
He also tends to move himself out of the play. He is a bit slow at getting to his assignments in the run game. He does have the strength to take on lineman and fill the gap, but he has to get there in time. There are multiple instances where he allows lineman to wall him off and he over runs the lanes, playing himself out of position. He will over pursue ball carriers in space looking for the big hit, and it costs him. He did it against Tarik Cohen for Chicago, when he could have broken down for a safe tackle, but he missed entirely. I love the aggression he plays with, but he’s more brawn then brain. Perryman should be on the roster next year as a depth piece and will be in a camp battle with Tranquil as a starter if Thomas Davis retires.
The Chargers seem to have a thing for Notre Dame players. Tranquil was an absolute steal in the 4th round of last year’s NFL Draft, and he provides the Charger’s a viable option for the next few years at the Mike position. For a young linebacker, Drue Tranquil shows a ton of upside in both the run and pass game. In a year where Tranquil was a part-time player, he had 75 tackles and one pass deflection. At times, he looked better than Denzel Perryman, and you could make a case he was more productive overall. He was an Academic All-American in college in 2016, a Weurffel Trophy finalist in 2017 and Winner in 2018, and he made the PFWA All-Rookie team this year. He was the lone bright spot of all Charger’s rookies drafted last year and should see an increased role in 2020.
He currently looks like the best all-around linebacker on the roster. He is a little small for the position at 230 pounds, but he makes up for it with uncanny instincts. He understands gap assignments and wastes no time in plugging holes in the run. In coverage, he is faster than both Perryman and Thomas. He quickly moves from a run read into pass coverage and doesn’t waste time staring into the back field on play action. Due to his size, lineman are able to overpower him and push him out of the play. I would like to see him tack on 10-15 pounds over the next few years without dropping speed. Strength would help him take on blocks and re-route pulling guards. Overall, Tranquil had a solid rookie year, and he will continue to grow into a stronger role moving into 2020.
The long-time Carolina Panther was the Chargers splash signing in free agency, and he was brought in to fix the issues in the defense’s run game from 2018. He is a very smart player who helps the defense get in position when needed. Davis is the perfect mentor to the team’s young linebackers and is instrumental in the growth of Drue Tranquil and Kyzir White, but the Chargers didn’t bring him in to only be a mentor. Davis seemingly played every snap this season, and while he helped correct the abysmal run defense, he was a liability to pass coverage. At 37 years old, the biggest loss to Davis’s game is his speed. He allowed 52 catches for 412 yards, mostly against shifty backs out of the backfield and athletic tight ends.
Still, Davis is productive for his knowledge alone. He is the best run defender at the second level and if he retires, the Chargers will have to rely on Perryman as the only thumper left to pick up the slack. At this point in his career, I don’t believe Davis should be an every-down linebacker, but I do believe there is value in keeping him for at least one more year. He is a cheap option and provides depth to a team that will need it. If he does retire, look for the Chargers to find a replacement in free agency or day 3 in the draft. I am worried that he won’t make his decision until preseason, and hopefully the Chargers have a contingency plan in place.
Kyzir White was the Charger’s starter a year ago, before he went down with a knee injury. He was placed on IR ending his 2018 season, which was sad, because he had a really good start. This year, he found himself in a crowded linebacking room, and didn’t see the playing time he probably should have. His specialty as a former strong safety is in pass coverage. It is surprising, as an argument could be said that the Chargers biggest weakness was pass coverage at the second level. In 124 passing snaps, White earned a 67.5 coverage grade, where he allowed 15 receptions for 152 yards per Pro Football Focus. Keep in mind that one of those receptions came week 3 against Houston, on a 53-yard catch and run. White also looked great tackling the ball carrier and had only 2 missed tackles in 372 snaps. Many fans have talked about going with younger, more athletic linebackers, and Kyzir is one of the players they are talking about. I am hoping to see more of him in 2020 with an expanded role.
Jatavis Brown/Nick Dzubnar/ Emeke Egbule
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chargers decided to move on from Jatavis Brown and Nick Dzubnar. Brown started off hot for the Chargers in 2016 with a 77.6 PFF grade, but slowly has looked worse each season. The Chargers have scaled back his reps on defense as a result. He played just 94 snaps this season. Nick Dzubnar has managed to make the team strictly for his special teams’ ability, but the team doesn’t trust him to play with real reps on defense. In the Divisional round of the playoffs last year against the Patriots, The Chargers were extremely thin at linebacker. Gus Bradley decided to go with 6 defensive backs against a Patriots team that had a run first mentality, with Sony Michel leading the way. Adrian Phillips as a linebacker worked against the Ravens and a shifty mobile quarterback, but Bill Belicheck made Gus Bradley pay for that the next week. That shows the teams trust in Dzubnar. Emeke Egbule was a late round draft pick last year who will be a special teamer next year.
The Chargers have a decision coming up as to whether or not they should hold on to Perryman for the last year of his contract. Tranquil has emerged as a rising star with more upside. Kyzir White is also an intriguing option, who offers more in pass coverage then both Thomas Davis and Denzel Perryman. Cutting Perryman would save $6.5M against the salary cap. With Jatavis Brown a pending free agent, a possible Thomas Davis retirement, and the unlikely resigning of Nick Dzubnar, there isn’t a whole lot of depth at the position. I think that Perryman is needed on this team next year, though I don’t foresee him starting over Tranquil. Tranquil earned a 66.6 PFF grade and should force the coaching staff’s decision, as he has earned a starting spot from his play last year. Kyzir White is growing into a role that compliments a Gus Bradley defense pretty well and might also be a better option for the team moving forward.
One of the things about the Gus Bradley scheme, is that it requires linebackers that can run and cover. There are not many blitz packages and it relies on pressure from all four defensive lineman. Bosa, Nwosu and Ingram fit this well, but there is a lack of push on the interior. This hurts the linebacking core that have to sit in coverage longer than normal. Couple that with a slow player like Thomas Davis or a player whose strength isn’t in pass coverage, like Denzel Perriman, and the defense has a serious hole. This also causes a lack of turnovers, which the team saw last year. The defense has some really good players at linebacker, but all the reps to Perryman and Davis, when they don’t fit the scheme, hurt what Gas Bradley wants to do. I believe both Drue Tranquil and Kyzir White should be starters with Davis and Perryman splitting reps depending on the package.