On the first day of free agency this year, the San Diego Chargers decided they needed to sign an offensive tackle. Specifically, a right tackle.
The open market had plenty of options, but they went with one they knew. Joe Barksdale started 16 games last season for the 4-12 Chargers on the right side of arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL. It was his first year in San Diego, which happened to be the franchise’s worst in 12 seasons. But at four years and $22.2 million, with $10.5 million guaranteed, the Chargers were ready to bring him back.
After the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles traded up to land the top two picks in the draft to take quarterbacks, San Diego knew that, at No. 3, it could have its choice of players at any other position. The need seemed clear: The Chargers had just finished last in the NFL in yards per carry, and quarterback Philip Rivers had been pressured on more drop-backs than all but one AFC passer.
The Chargers needed to find a way to protect their 34-year-old quarterback and spring a first-round running back (Melvin Gordon) stuck in the mud, and three talented offensive tackles were there to choose from.
But San Diego passed on Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, Michigan State’s Jack Conklin and Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil and instead took Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. The decision was a shocking one to many outsiders. For the Chargers, however, it was part of the plan. They promised $13.8 million to two offensive tackles for a reason, with left tackle King Dunlap’s 2016 salary of $3.3 million guaranteed.
They could see the challenge that lies ahead, and it was no task for a rookie.
This season, Barksdale is set to line up across the line from the likes of pass rushers DeMarcus Ware, Justin Houston and Bruce Irvin, and that’s just in six AFC West divisional games. He’ll also see pressures from Von Miller, Tamba Hali and Khalil Mack. That list contains four of the top 16 pass rushers in terms of hurries last season, as well as five of the top 11 players listed in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush grades.
That’s a tall order, even for a 6-foot-5, 326-pound man such as Barksdale. And at right tackle, he might be performing one of the most underrated jobs in football when it comes to its importance.
There used to be a day when football teams came up with five starting offensive linemen and simply put the least skilled of them at right tackle. The best of rest would line up at left tackle, where he would square off with the defense’s best pass rusher on what in most cases was the quarterback’s blind side. The right tackle would then take on a defensive end more suited for stopping the run.
But the NFL has turned into a mismatch league. The increasing difficulty of stopping the passing game keeps defensive coordinators up at night, and they are constantly scanning the field for a weakness to exploit. The best teams pressure from multiple levels and positions, making the pass rush unpredictable. The Broncos just won the Super Bowl with that type of defensive attack.
Denver, Kansas City and Oakland are loaded along the defensive front and will unleash the beasts on each other in the AFC West. The odd team out is the reloading Chargers, who selected Bosa to try to catch up to the competition.
The game is continually asking more out of right tackles, but the market has yet to adjust. Not counting the Eagles and Lane Johnson, whose remaining $35 million guaranteed could be voided due to his latest PED violation, not a single right tackle in the NFL has an average salary that would crack the top 18 for left tackles. In the same offseason that left tackle Kelvin Beachum, recovering from a torn ACL, signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars for $9 million a year, rising right tackle Mitchell Schwartz went to the Kansas City Chiefs for $6.6 million annually.
Barksdale, 27, played last season on a one-year, $1.1 million deal ($350,000 guaranteed) after spending the previous two seasons with the St. Louis Rams. He came into the league in 2011 as a third-round pick by the Oakland Raiders out of LSU.
During a season in which the sight of Rivers crumbling under a collapsed pocket became the snapshot of the Chargers’ ineptitude, Barksdale was the outlier. He was the only San Diego offensive lineman to play more than 12 games, and he started them all, logging the fifth-most pass snaps for a tackle in the NFL.
After a rough first start to against the Detroit Lions, Barksdale showed consistent growth as a pass blocker for perhaps the first time in his career. He wasn’t a great downhill run blocker, and maybe never will be, but by midseason speed rushers were having a hard time getting around his bulky frame and massive arms. It caused many to turn to the bull rush, which is where the likes of Miller and Houston eventually won out. But considering the task San Diego asked of him, Barksdale more than held his own.
Barksdale’s good work was overshadowed by a Chargers season marred by injury and defeat. This year, with a healthy roster and some reinforcements in place, the Chargers are looking to rebound, with Barksdale playing a key role. That should come in the way he reaches out and takes edge-bending rushers up the field, creating throwing lanes for the swing passes and shallow crossers that Rivers loves.
But more than anything else, the Chargers are paying Barksdale to protect their aging franchise quarterback from the pass-rushing terrors of the division.
All from the evolving position of right tackle.