Can Russell Okung Solve the Los Angeles Chargers' Offensive Line Issues?

The Chargers inked Okung to a big deal Thursday. Can he help revive a struggling offensive line?

My parents got married in 1987. Their wedding was in August, which means there have been 29 NFL drafts since they exchanged their vows.

Without looking, how many offensive linemen has the Los Angeles Chargers' franchise drafted in these 29 years?

If you need a hint, they've drafted more Hall of Famers than they have offensive linemen. In the late Junior Seau and Ladainian Tomlinson, they've got two of those puppies.

Only one pick has been an offensive lineman. That was D.J. Fluker in 2013, the guy they cut earlier this week. And their play on the field reflects this neglect.

When you consistently ignore the big men up front in the draft, you've got to find other ways to address the position. Not shockingly, this was a major need for the team again this year, but they did take a step toward improvement in the opening day of free agency.

Left tackle Russell Okung comes over from the division-rival Denver Broncos to try to help strengthen a unit the Chargers have long eskewed. Is he enough to help right the ship?

Let's try to decipher this with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to measure the efficiency of both teams and players. Prior to each play, there's an expected number of points a team will score on its current drive. A three-yard rush on 3rd and 2 increases that, leading to positive NEP. That same three-yard rush on 3rd and 4, though, will likely lead to a punt, and NEP helps quantify those differences.

The Chargers have plenty of work to do up front, and one player can't change that. But Okung should at least help.

Aiding the Rush and the Pass

One concern around Okung is that he's coming from another unit that struggled in 2016. While the Chargers' offensive line was a weakness, you could make the same critique of the Broncos'. Even still, they were better than the Chargers by most measures.

Let's start things off on the ground, where the Chargers were among the worst teams in football when rushing left. Here's a breakdown of what happened when each team ran that direction last year, the place Okung played with the Broncos and will likely wind up with the Chargers. Success Rate is the percentage of rushes that lead to an increase in expected points for the drive.

When Rushing Left Attempts Rushing NEP per Carry Success Rate
Denver Broncos 120 -0.03 39.17%
San Diego Chargers 85 -0.09 32.94%
League Average -- 0.03 41.04%

Although both teams were below average, the Chargers were a couple stone throws worse in both categories. And it's not as if this should fall on the shoulders of Melvin Gordon; the Chargers had the sixth-best Success Rate on runs up the middle. They just desperately needed help on the edges.

Okung's signing likely means the Chargers will move on from last year's left tackle, King Dunlap. They can cut Dunlap without taking a major cap hit, and he was recently arrested for allegedly violating a protective order. Can Okung serve as an upgrade on the field?

Let's check out how the two teams fared when these guys were on the field. Dunlap missed four games, so we'll omit those from the equation. Sack NEP per drop back looks at the expected points each team lost on sacks throughout the year divided by the total number of drop backs.

In 2016 Drop Backs Sacks Sack NEP per Drop Back Sack Rate
Denver Broncos 616 40 -0.09 6.56%
San Diego Chargers 470 31 -0.11 6.59%

If we look at just the 12 games that Dunlap played, the Chargers would have had the 25th-best Sack NEP per drop back in the league. The Broncos were 18th. Again, neither team was good, but the Broncos were at least better.

On an individual level, Dunlap allowed 4 sacks on the year, according to STATS, and the team had 470 drop backs in the 12 games he played. Okung also allowed 4 sacks, though that was over 146 additional drop backs. Everything seems to indicate that this will be an upgrade at left tackle for the Chargers.

Dunlap is scheduled to count for $8.6 million against the cap in 2017, according to Spotrac, and Okung's new contract puts him at $6 million. The cap charges on Okung shoot up in the following years, but that also comes with a decrease in the cap penalty should they release him. Overall, this really doesn't look like a deal that will prevent them from addressing other needs, and it allows them to improve both on the ground and through the air. That's not too shabby.

A Justified Risk

Okung is entering his age-30 season, he has had injury troubles in the past, and he comes with a solid dent in the checkbook. But in the Chargers' position, it seems like a justified risk.

The Chargers are one of the few teams in the league lucky enough to have a solid quarterback in Philip Rivers. As numberFire's JJ Zacharison wrote last month, they were much better than their record indicated in 2016, meaning we should have expected a bit of a rebound to begin with. Upgrades on the offensive line can help expedite that process.

They're nowhere near done retooling this unit, and additional pieces are needed either via the draft or free agency. But based on the metrics, it does seem as if Okung is a solid way to start. The Chargers have pushed the offensive line aside for far too long, and this could be a signal that they're beginning to change things for the better.