What can Chargers do to best surround Herbert?

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Los Angeles Chargers. What do they need to take advantage of Justin Herbert’s rookie contract?

Miami Dolphins defensive back Nik Needham (40) sacks Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10), during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Justin Herbert has the skills to be an NFL star, but he needs help on the Chargers' roster. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Chargers’ streak of losses by one possession ended at seven on Sunday. No, the Chargers didn’t beat the Buffalo Bills, falling to 3-8, and it didn’t help that they botched a goal-line series at game’s end that — had it worked — would have extended the one-score losing streak.

Perhaps the Chargers’ biggest issue is coaching. That many close losses this season — six of them coming against teams in the playoff hunt — suggests that the team’s talent gap isn’t huge compared to the league’s front runners.

Or perhaps it’s also bad luck. No team has been ripped asunder by injuries quite like the Chargers in recent years.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Now with QB Justin Herbert showing himself as the best rookie performer at the position, it’s clear that the Chargers have to do whatever they can in the next three or four seasons to end their streak of misery and strike while the iron is hot.

Teams that unearth a quarterback gem must do whatever they can to take advantage of that player’s reduced salary over the length of the rookie contract. That potential advantage becomes even more significant with the league’s salary cap likely to be reduced in 2021, and teams that are well stocked with selections and a rookie-contract QB might be able to take advantage of the system in the coming few seasons.

The Chargers are in good shape, pick-wise, in the 2021 draft. They have all of their own selections (including a possible top-five overall pick), a likely third-round compensatory choice (for losing Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon in free agency) and an extra sixth-rounder from the Tennessee Titans.

Will they have enough to patch holes, allow Herbert to better thrive and win games? It’s a lot to ask for a franchise that has one double-digit-win season since 2010, has made the playoffs only twice in that span and has a record of 80-91 over that time.

If this somewhat cursed franchise is going to change that trajectory, now is the time — armed with a potential star QB — to do so.

USC OL Alijah Vera-Tucker has looked the part so far after moving from left guard to left tackle in 2020. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
USC OL Alijah Vera-Tucker has looked the part so far after moving from left guard to left tackle in 2020. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early-round prospect

This would not be the first-round pick if the Chargers stay in the top 10.

But Vera-Tucker could be in play in the top 40 overall selections, which puts him in range for the Chargers’ second-round pick — or perhaps for a trade up. Last year, general manager Tom Telesco moved up from No. 37 to 23 overall to target LB Kenneth Murray and likely wouldn’t be scared to do something similar for OL help with a player they really like.

Vera-Tucker makes a lot of sense because the Chargers could use help at guard and tackle. Trai Turner just returned from injury a few weeks ago, but he, Forrest Lamp and other other guards who started in Turner’s place have mostly struggled. The issue might be even bigger outside, as Sam Tevi and Trey Pipkins have struggled and Bryan Bulaga is a constant injury concern.

The Trojans moved Vera-Tucker from left guard (where he was terrific in 2019 as a first-time starter) to left tackle this season. And so far, he has acquitted himself well at the new position through three games, even while having his hands full against Utah on Nov. 21.

Assuming Oregon tackle Penei Sewell is off the board when the Chargers pick, there might not be another blocker worth picking in the top 10. But by hell or high water, the Chargers must come out of the first two days of the draft with help at this position.

In addition to these factors, scouting is going to be different this year. The pandemic has hindered general managers traveling and casting first-hand eyes on prospects.

So it would be natural for the Chargers to use a relatively high pick on a player who is working about 40 miles down the road. It will be very difficult for a GM to make a pick of a prospect whom they’ve not seen at least once in person.

Tucker is part of a very respectable second tier of OL prospects who figure to go somewhere in late Round 1 or early Round 2. His flexibility, light feet and heavy hands make him an ideal candidate to help bolster the Chargers’ starting five at any one of four positions (likely everywhere but center).

Mid-round prospect

If they don’t select a cornerback up high, the Chargers shouldn’t wait too long to take one. It’s a solid class of CB talent, but it drops off a cliff after a certain point.

Rochell is long and lean, and his positional instincts are still growing after being moved to defense after starring on the offensive side of the ball in high school. He’s still raw technique-wise, especially in zone coverage, but has immense upside with further development.

Although he’s lean-framed, Rochell has the type of body to add bulk without sacrificing speed. It would be a bit of a project selection but one that could pay off.

Central Arkansas CB Robert Rochell is a bit raw but has top-100 potential for the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Central Arkansas CB Robert Rochell is a bit raw but has top-100 potential for the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rochell is on the cusp of the top-100 overall selections. His limited body of work (and shortened final season) might scare some teams off, but he offers length and press-coverage ability and fits the mold of a Gus Bradley corner — that is if Bradley and/or the rest of the staff is brought back after a disappointing season.

Plus, the Chargers have not shied away from drafting FCS-level prospects in recent years (e.g. Nasir Adderley, Easton Stick, Pipkins), and they have several more subdivision players on their roster.

Late-round prospect

The Chargers have had success finding RB talent later in the draft (and among the undrafted ranks), so I could see them adding one on Day 3 considering their issues with depth and injuries this season at the position.

With this pick, we help buttress a possible need with Hunter Henry’s contract once again being up after playing this season on the franchise tag. The depth behind him is lean, and Virgil Green is also slated for free agency in the spring.

Even if Henry is re-signed (or franchised a second time), the Chargers need depth here. He also missed the entire 2018 season, plus four games in 2019, and it’s hard to put too much stock into the limited contributions of Donald Parham Jr. and Stephen Anderson.

North Carolina State TE Cary Angeline (#6) is a quality receiver with terrific length. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
North Carolina State TE Cary Angeline has high quality hands and he has terrific length. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Angeline carries a Parham-like frame at more than 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, with 34-inch arms and 10-inch hands. He’s more of a finesse player — a detached receiver with surprising ability to get down the seam and sting defenses.

Angeline ranks 22nd in FBS among tight ends (with 25 or more targets) in yards per route run at 1.47, per PFF, averages 15.5 yards per catch in his career and has dropped only one pass over his past 21 games.

Angeline isn’t a quality NFL blocker, although he appears more aggressive and effective in that department this season than he has previously. But Angeline is the kind of long, big-bodied target who could help Herbert in the red zone, where the Chargers rank a lowly 23rd in conversion rate this season.

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