NFL Draft News & Analysis

2024 NFL Draft: A deep dive into the Chargers' options at No. 5 overall

2T88W66 November 18, 2023: LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers (8) makes a move after a catch during NCAA football game action between the Georgia St. Panthers and the LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. Jonathan Mailhes/CSM

• An offensive tackle or wide receiver? There has been much speculation about what the Chargers will do in the first round of the draft. The notion of “Harbaugh Ball” leads people to believe that the team will take an offensive lineman at No. 5. But after the team traded away Keenan Allen, there is now such a big void in the wide receiver room that a wide receiver at No. 5 makes too much sense.

• What is the correct approach? There is definitely a case to be made for why they should take an offensive tackle in Round 1, but some of the benefits associated with that may not be seen immediately, especially if that player has to switch sides as a rookie.

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A lot changed about the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. The hiring of Jim Harbaugh gives the team an experienced head coach with a history of winning. Hiring new general manager Joe Hortiz gives the team an experienced executive who honed his craft with the Baltimore Ravens, one of the most successful and stable organizations of the past decade.

It's not all been positive, though, with the side also losing franchise icons like Keenan Allen and Mike Williams due to troubles with the salary cap.

There has been much speculation about what the Chargers will do in the first round of the draft. The notion of “Harbaugh Ball” leads people to believe that the team will take an offensive lineman at No. 5. But after the team traded away Keenan Allen, there is now such a big void in the wide receiver room that a wide receiver at No. 5 makes too much sense. The Ravens' history of wheeling and dealing in the draft also makes the Chargers a potential trade-back partner for a quarterback-needy team like the Minnesota Vikings.

The main storyline I want to investigate here, however, is the Chargers taking an offensive tackle, whether it is at No. 5 overall or after a potential trade down.

In its current state, the Chargers roster needs:

A WR1 who can be Justin Herbert’s best friend for the next decade.

An impactful interior defensive lineman who can rush the passer and play the run.

A young outside cornerback to be the main guy in Jesse Minter's defense.

A starting-caliber linebacker, but the team can address this outside the first round.

What do they not need? Well, they don’t need an offensive tackle. As it stands, they have a tackle duo of Rashawn Slater and Trey Pipkins. Slater is a guaranteed starter for 2024, so if L.A. does pick up an offensive lineman (as many mock drafts suggest), Pipkins’ starting spot is likely gone to the rookie who may have to switch sides in his rookie year.

Here, we’ll examine both sides of the argument and see whether it makes sense to pursue that option in the first place.

The Timeline

Ultimately, this comes down to what the Chargers believe their competitive timeline is. Justin Herbert is in Year 5; he has already signed a massive extension and is no longer playing on rookie quarterback money. And the cap situation was so bad that the front office had to ask Allen, Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa to take pay cuts to stay on the roster.

Both Harbaugh and Hortiz have come out and said they expect to be competitive in 2024, though it's hard to tell whether that is just coach/GM speak or an actual belief.

That said, their belief in their ability to really compete will be a factor in this pick. I say this because an offensive tackle will likely not make as much of an impact in Year 1 as a wide receiver would.

If they pick a wide receiver, he would immediately become the WR1 on the depth chart, while a tackle would either start as a backup or make Trey Pipkins a swing tackle. And Pipkins is currently accounting for $8.75 million against the 2024 cap.

I want to quote my former boss and good friend Eric Eager here: “Draft for needs that will exist a year from now instead of needs that are immediate.”

The Chargers do not have an immediate need at offensive tackle, but they clearly have an immediate need at wide receiver, even if they sign a free agent before the draft. That being said, Trey Pipkins is a likely cut candidate in 2025.

My expected contract model gives him about a 31% chance to play the final year of his deal, and if he leaves, that’ll open up a hole at right tackle.

So, going back to Eric’s quote, the Chargers could very well have a need at tackle a year from now, which they could address with their first pick in the draft. But if they genuinely believe they can compete now, is Trey Pipkins a tackle that holds them back, or someone that has to be upgraded?

In the above graph, we can see that Pipkins was not only an above-average player when accounting for the difficulty of the assignment but was also put in the fifth-hardest situation among all offensive tackles last year.

Both his pass-blocking efficiency (95.8) and pass-block grade in true pass sets (61.9) were middle of the pack among tackles. And given that he’s currently the 30th highest-paid tackle in the league, that’s a fine outcome. Can it be improved upon? Sure, but it’s not a situation that will derail the Chargers season.

Click here to see Taliese Fuaga's 2024 NFL Draft profile!

Draft Opportunity Cost

The draft is not only about trying to find the best players. Taking players at premium positions also matters, as few things are more valuable than good players at premium positions like wide receiver, edge rusher and offensive tackle on cheap deals.

To quote Eric again, “The draft is the only cost-effective way to get players at premium positions, so try not to use high draft capital on non-premium positions.”

Whether the Chargers stay at No. 5 or trade back to No. 11 (or further even down), they should use that pick to draft a premium position  — specifically, a wide receiver, interior defensive line, cornerback, or offensive tackle.

If they stay at No. 5, their options should shrink. Realistically, they should only target a wide receiver or offensive tackle at No. 5.  As Timo Riske has studied before, teams rarely come out on top when they reach for players.

Based on the consensus big board, here are the non-QBs in the top 10: Marvin Harrison Jr (1), Malik Nabers (4), Brock Bowers (5), Joe Alt (6), Rome Odunze (7), Olu Fashanu (8), Dallas Turner (9) — three wide receivers, two offensive tackles, one tight end and one edge defender. The Chargers don’t need an edge defender, and picking Brock Bowers in the top five would immediately make him the 12th-highest-paid tight end in the NFL.

If they trade down to 11 or further, their options expand to defensive players like Quinyon Mitchell, Terrion Arnold, Byron Murphy II and a litany of other offensive tackles. But the Chargers' goal with their first pick, wherever it is, could be trying to maximize surplus value instead of total value.

And so here is a reason why the Chargers could consider an offensive tackle in the first round.

As Kevin Cole has studied in the past, the positions that provide the highest surplus value in the first round are offensive tackle, interior defensive line and edge defender. These positions also have very steep drop-offs after the first and second rounds, making it hard to find impactful players outside of a top-60 pick.

If the Chargers really want to find a top-tier offensive tackle, they will likely have to take one in the first round. The same goes for a game-changing interior defensive lineman.

Draft analysts say this is a very deep wide receiver class. Based on Kevin’s chart and the quality of receivers on Day 2, it does provide some evidence that the Chargers should draft a tackle in the first round and receiver on Day 2. And while it may not fill a need right away in Year 1, they would be drafting proactively.

Trading back to 11 (which would also likely give them Pick 23 from Minnesota) also potentially allows them to fix two holes in the first round.

So, if they decide to address the interior defensive line position with Byron Murphy II or Jer’Zahn Newton at No. 11, they could take a tackle like JC Latham or Amarius Mims if either is on the board at Pick 23. Then they could take the best receiver off the board at Pick 37. If they were truly looking to maximize surplus value, this would be the way to approach it.

PFF's big board for the 2024 NFL Draft offers three-year player grades, combine measurables, position rankings and in-depth player analysis for all of the top draft prospects.

This is where it becomes interesting.

A top-10 wide receiver adds more value to their team than a top-10 offensive tackle. This is mostly due to the weak-link nature of the offensive line but also because of the second-order effects of what an elite wide receiver adds to an offense.

The Athletic's Ted Nguyen and Nate Tice mentioned how the addition of Davante Adams forced teams to play more two-high coverages, which then opened up the run game for the Raiders and helped Josh Jacobs to have a career year in 2022.

Here’s another fun fact: Only \three teams in the past 15 years have drafted three first-round offensive linemen in a four-year span: 2011-2014 Cowboys (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin), 2013-2016 Titans (Chance Warmack, Taylor Decker, Jack Conklin) and 2015-2018 Lions (Laken Tomlinson, Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow).

All of these teams drafted some solid players. But in the three years following the final OL pick, the teams combined for two playoff wins and a 70-73-1 record.

But again, it comes down to: What are the Chargers looking to be in 2024?

Currently, the Chargers' wide receiver room has the fewest career receiving yards of any team in the NFL. Is this a good way of measuring a wide receiver room's skill? Probably not, but it just shows the Chargers' lack of experience and production on the roster.

2023 first-round pick Quentin Johnston really struggled as a rookie, and Joshua Palmer has been in a WR3 role most of his career. The tight end room isn’t anything special either, as it is mostly filled with journeymen players at the position.

They need an alpha WR1 in this room. Given how deep this class is, can it be found in the second or third round? Yes, but the team could find themselves having to reach simply to fill a position of need. On the other hand, Harrison Jr. and Nabers are both in the top five on the consensus big board.

I don’t know whether any receiver outside Harrison, Nabers or Odunze can step in on Day 1 and be a true WR1 in the league. And the Chargers will need that if they are trying to compete for a Super Bowl.

If they’re focused on 2025, when they will have over $70 million in cap space and likely two or three compensatory picks on top of what they currently have, they could wait on a wide receiver and let him develop in Year 1.

Here are some other facts worth considering when mocking a tackle to the Chargers in the first round. From 2011-2014, the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers spent zero top-100 picks at offensive tackle, and their highest OL pick was Pick 70 in the third round.

This is likely due to the team having Joe Staley and Alex Boone when Harbaugh arrived, but it's still noteworthy. With Greg Roman as offensive coordinator of the Ravens, the team spent two first-round picks at wide receiver in four years. Joe Hortiz also comes from a front office that seemingly prioritizes a best-player-available mentality, even if they don’t play a premium position.

After going through each side, I don’t really see the value in the Chargers taking an offensive tackle in the first round, even if they trade back.

The Chargers should prioritize the passing game with Herbert as their quarterback, and to maximize that efficiency, taking a dominant WR1 will lead to a higher ceiling.

With how good Herbert is at avoiding sacks — he has finished top-10 in pressure-to-sack rate every year since 2020 — he doesn’t need a stacked offensive line to succeed. It would be more beneficial to get a wide receiver who can get open, which helps mitigate any offensive line issues, as Herbert can get the ball out quickly.

With Harbaugh at the helm, the Chargers also might not be picking at No. 5 again for a while, so getting a playmaker like Marvin Harrison Jr. or Malik Nabers might not be possible down the line.

With how new this regime is and how long ago Harbaugh coached in the NFL, it’s tough to really predict what the Chargers will do early in the draft. There is definitely a case to be made for why they should take an offensive tackle in Round 1, but some of the benefits associated with that may not be seen immediately, especially if that player has to switch sides as a rookie.

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