The San Diego Chargers hosted veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney on a free agent visit Wednesday shortly after the news broke that young OLB Melvin Ingram tore his ACL, but the Chargers, desperate for pass rushing help after the injury to Ingram and the departure of Shaun Phillips to an AFC West rival in the Denver Broncos this offseason, did not offer Freeney a contract. Rumors built up throughout the week, thanks in part to Freeney’s dad, but the news broke this morning that the Chargers were close to signing a deal with Freeney. Now, Ian Rapoport reports that both sides have agreed in principle to a two-year deal, thus taking Freeney off the board and sending him to San Diego.
Needless to say, the Chargers got the man they needed, and I would call this a massive upgrade for the Chargers. Even if Ingram did not get injured, the Chargers pass rush from the outside linebackers wouldn’t have been pretty with run-stopper Jarret Johnson starting on the other side. Corey Liuget is the team’s best pass rusher, with Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes being the only other above-average pass rushers in the rotation. Ingram would have taken big steps next season so the Chargers pass rush wouldn’t be a major flaw, but the pass rush became a tremendous need for the Chargers once Ingram tore his ACL.
The interesting thing is that Freeney was actually a better pass rusher than Ingram last season, even though Freeney isn’t as good of a fit at outside linebacker. According to the Pro Football Focus, Freeney pressured the quarterback 34 times (clearly the best on the Indianapolis Colts), while Ingram had 29 pressures and was thus slightly less efficient overall. Ingram, again, has more upside than Freeney, but there is also a slight chance of Freeney “bouncing back” next season, but that’s assuming that A) Freeney had a down year and B) that this bounce back will not be offset by a decline due to age (Freeney is 33).
But the point remains that Freeney was a better pass rusher than Ingram, and he was a much better pass rusher than anybody on this roster. It’s easy to say that the Chargers are desperate enough to take Freeney’s drop in effectiveness as a 3-4 OLB whilst still likely paying him a large sum of money, and that statement is mostly true; it just doesn’t quite capture what I want to describe here.
Freeney’s 34 pressures last season were accrued in less snaps than Ingram’s, true, so maybe I jumped the gun by saying Freeney was a “better” pass rusher than Ingram last season. But he was the better player, because Freeney was better in coverage and committed three less penalties.
Instead of comparing Ingram and Freeney, though, let’s tackle the Chargers roster as it stands right now. If the Chargers didn’t sign Freeney, then they would have been starting Johnson and Larry English at outside linebacker next season. Johnson is a useful player due to his tough run defense, but he is not a prototypical 3-4 OLB due to his lack of pass rushing ability. Meanwhile, English is basically a JAG and pretty much a non-factor as a pass rusher. At this level, you can’t afford to have two poor pass rushers starting at OLB, because that puts a huge strain on your defensive front to put pressure on the QB, and it also puts an even bigger strain on the secondary, and that’s definitely not something the Chargers need to be doing.
The decision to sign a pass rusher was clearly an obvious one, and the Chargers needed to act quickly. Using the word “desperate” makes such a move seem insulting, but here it was necessary. For if the Chargers stood pat and did not sign a quality pass rusher (yes, Freeney is still a “quality” pass rusher even as a 3-4 OLB), they would have had a huge amount of trouble putting pressure on the opposition. In fact, the pass rush would have been the Chargers biggest problem, and they definitely needed to find an answer to Ingram’s severe injury.
Dwight Freeney is the Chargers answer, and Tom Telesco has been doing a great job this offseason; this move was no different. Telesco is also very familiar with Freeney as a former Colts executive, and he did indeed see Freeney up close in the 3-4 OLB. Although ACL tears are much easier to recover from nowadays, an extra year of Freeney constitutes insurance for the San Diego Chargers. But, beyond that, it also gives the Chargers a potentially very good pass rush with both Freeney and Ingram on the field at both OLB spots. Outside linebackers in the 3-4 play off of each other, so having two strong pass rushers on either side can be a huge boon for your defense, and the Chargers would also be able to make Freeney more effective by spelling him a little bit and giving significant snaps to Johnson as well.
Although the Chargers likely gave Freeney a good sum of cash in order to secure the upgrade they were desperate for, it was worth it for Telesco and the Chargers. Not only do I trust Telesco’s player evaluation and prior knowledge of Freeney’s abilities, but I also know that everything is relative. From the Chargers perspective, Freeney’s talent is increased in value due to the sheer need for a pass rusher from the Chargers perspective, and that makes this deal a massive upgrade for the Chargers and a move that was very much worth it once you scrape beneath the surface.