The NFL draft is a weekend-long debate for teams to decide whether to draft for needs or best available players.
The Chargers had the unique need of drafting a star player who could help them make a splash in Los Angeles as they head into their first season at SoFi Stadium.
If that was a priority for the Chargers, which it seemed it was after their failed attempt to sign Tom Brady in free agency, then former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made the most sense for them.
But the Chargers didn’t address the right-now need. They were patient, staying put at No. 6 to draft quarterback Justin Herbert, a player who can help in the long run and learn behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
The Chargers’ 2020 draft started with a no-rush mentality, but by the end of it, it was clear they plan to rush often on the field as they transition into a run-heavy scheme in the post-Philip Rivers era.
Herbert, who ran for three touchdowns in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win, joined a quarterback room that has one obvious similarity. Herbert, Taylor and Easton Stick can run with the football.
Add the mobile quarterbacks with the somewhat surprising fourth-round selection of former UCLA running back Joshua Kelley, and the Chargers appear well on their way to being a smash-mouth football team.
Running back wasn’t as big of a need because Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are already on the Chargers’ roster, but Chargers coach Anthony Lynn was antsy to get Kelley, the Lancaster native who’s known as a power back. The Chargers didn’t have a Day 2 pick because they traded their second and third-round picks to the New England Patriots to draft linebacker Kenneth Murray at No. 23 of the first round.
“I was hoping he would be there in the fourth round after the first day ended because we didn’t have a third-round pick,” Lynn said about Kelley. “He’s a downhill physical runner that I liked watching the tape.”
Kelley will replace Melvin Gordon, the bruising running back who left the Chargers to sign with the Denver Broncos last month.
Lynn, however, pumped the brakes on the assumption of being a run-heavy offense in 2020, saying he’ll take whatever the defense gives them, but it’s nice to know they’ll be able to run the ball when needed.
“The offense may look a little different, but you still have to be able to play quarterback and play it from the pocket,” Lynn said.
It was also wrong to assume Lynn was hot under the beanie he was sporting in 80-degree weather during a Zoom chat with reporters after the draft.
“I like it 68 in my house,” Lynn said. “I’m good, bro.”
The versatile all-weather beanie is the way Lynn and the Chargers operate. They continued to add players who play multiple roles, like Murray, who’s capable of playing as an inside and outside linebacker.
“He plays his game like an old-school linebacker,” Lynn said about Murray. “He’s really intense. But he has that speed that we haven’t had at that position since I’ve been here.”
The way Lynn described Murray, is what Chargers fans should expect from the team’s offense. A classic American muscle car with modern “Fast and Furious” features under the hood.
Lynn won’t admit it, but the Chargers gave another clue in the fifth round for their looming run-pass option scheme. Every RPO offense needs a gadget player, and former Virginia wide receiver Joe Reed fits the bill.
Reed, who was drafted at pick No. 151 by the Chargers, was a First-Team All-American kick returner and was a First-Team All-ACC all-purpose player. Reed knows how to get yards in different ways. Lynn and general manager Tom Telesco have already referred to him as a trick-play specialist, a player who has his own set of plays, a player opposing defenses need to be aware of at all times.
The Chargers favored scheme needs over positional needs. They didn’t draft an offensive tackle and used one of the picks on the crowded secondary after they selected strong safety Alohi Gilman in the sixth round. Gilman, of course, was another versatile player, and Lynn compared him to do-it-all safety Adrian Phillips, who left in free agency to join the Patriots.
“I’m comfortable with what we have,” Lynn said about the left tackle position. “I never want to go into a draft feeling like I have to take a certain position. That’s just a bad feeling because you don’t control the draft. We didn’t get a tackle, but we got one in free agency (Storm Norton) and we have some options from last season with some young guys I feel good about.”
The Chargers have question marks on the offensive line, but they drastically upgraded the right side with the additions of right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Trai Turner, and former Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey is trending in the right direction after undergoing neck surgery last season. Turner came in the trade with the Carolina Panthers for left tackle Russell Okung.
Perhaps the Chargers are comfortable with their inexperienced in-house options at left tackle because the offensive line won’t need to hold the pocket for too long with a run-first offense. Also, they have skilled players who get open fast with Ekeler and Keenan Allen, and the Chargers drafted a standout slot receiver in K.J. Hill with their last pick on Saturday.
The Chargers didn’t address their deep-threat need, but with quarterbacks who can create time with their legs, the wide receivers will be able to make their way up field. Mike Williams isn’t known for his speed, but the big-body receiver had a league-high 20.4 yards per catch.
Perhaps the Chargers are underestimating the value of a quality left tackle, but they’ve raved about Trey Pipkins’ promising rookie season. The Chargers could sign a veteran left tackle to compete with the second-year player, but as of now, it seems they’re betting Pipkins is ready to start.
The Chargers did address a need by drafting a quarterback, but it was the one they likely coveted for their new scheme.
Lynn and Telesco are now tied to Herbert. His progression will dictate if Lynn gets a multi-year extension and if Telesco will continue to run drafts, despite only making the postseason twice in seven years.
But regardless of what transpires in the upcoming years, the GM and head coach are doing it their way with an eye toward the future. Football needs prevailed over selling tickets at SoFi Stadium.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon, 6’6, 236 (1st round, No. 6): Herbert isn’t as polished as the quarterbacks who were drafted before, but he might have the most upside with an arm that’s being called the strongest among the prospects. Herbert will need to beat Tyrod Taylor for the starting job, but his physical traits could flourish with the Chargers’ depth at the skill positions.
Kenneth Murray, LB, Oklahoma, 6’2, 241 (1st round, No. 23): Murray’s versatility essentially fills two needs for the Chargers, who were searching for a weakside linebacker and pass rush depth. Murray played middle linebacker at Oklahoma, but his high motor could make him the lead candidate to replace Thomas Davis. Murray, who was recruited as an outside linebacker, could help in blitz situations in the Chargers’ second pass-rush rotation.
Joshua Kelley, RB, UCLA, 5’11, 212 (4th round, No. 112): Kelley filled a need as a power running back and Melvin Gordon replacement, but the draft experts are high on him as a pass-catching back. He showed flashes in his limited opportunities as a receiver at UCLA, but regardless of how the yards came, he was one of the most productive running backs in school history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
Joe Reed, WR, Virginia, 6’0, 224 (5th round, No. 151): Reed’s versatility as a receiver and in special teams could make him the Chargers’ trick-play specialist. Expect jet sweeps and many motions for the former First-Team All-American kick returner. Reed excels as a catch-and-go wideout, but he could contend for the team’s deep threat opening.
Alohi Gilman, S, Notre Dame, 5’11, 201 (6th round, No. 186): The selection of Gilman made it clear the Chargers were searching for downhill tacklers regardless of position. Gilman’s tenacity to go after the ball will allow him to contend as Derwin James’ strong safety backup or at least contribute on special teams.
K.J. Hill, WR, Ohio State, 5’11, 196 (7th round, No. 220): The Chargers went strength over need after they drafted the slot receiver who led Ohio State in receptions last year. Hill is known as a crisp route-runner, and now he’ll get to learn from one of the best in Keenan Allen. The Chargers didn’t draft a go-deep burner, but Hill will be open often to move the chains.