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What the Steelers can learn from the Los Angeles’ Chargers retooling

With Justin Herbert at the core, the Chargers have laid a blueprint of sorts for how the Steelers can improve their roster in just a few years.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Simply put, last week was one of the wildest in recent NFL memory.

Last Monday, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for at least the 2022 season due to betting on NFL games while away from the team; that tidbit felt months old by the time the Cleveland Browns traded for Amari Cooper on Saturday.

Thursday brought a blockbuster of its own, as the Los Angeles Chargers kept pace in the AFC West arms race by trading for Chicago Bears OLB Khalil Mack. After acquiring the six-time Pro Bowler, Los Angeles seems in prime position to make the playoffs in 2022.

However, the road to (presumptive) success has been winding for Los Angeles. The team has won one playoff game since 2015 and hasn’t played in the AFC Championship since 2008.

At the end of the 2019 season, the Chargers sat at 5-11, an about-face from a promising 12-4 campaign the year before. What made matters even tougher to swallow was that franchise icon Philip Rivers ultimately moved on. LA was left with Tyrod Taylor as its frontrunner to start in 2020.

Does that quarterback situation ring a bell?

It goes without saying that Los Angeles’ two-year stretch came with numerous twists and turns, events that almost nobody could predict – including Taylor’s lung being punctured by a team doctor. Obviously, the Steelers cannot account for such preposterous occurrences, and their situation is not a carbon copy; barring a total disaster, Mike Tomlin should remain the team’s coach, unlike Anthony Lynn in Hollywood.

Nevertheless, GM Tom Telesco has turned the Chargers from an aimless squad to an AFC powerhouse in just three years. Here are four lessons the Steelers should absorb from Los Angeles.

1. Don’t overspend at QB if you have lots of roster holes

The 2020 offseason closely mimicked this year’s in terms of quarterbacks up for grabs.

While no significant trades for signal-callers went down (unless you consider Nick Foles and Kyle Allen big-time names), the free agent market was lush with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Dak Prescott, Ryan Tannehill and Teddy Bridgewater. As you are aware, Brees, Prescott and Tannehill each ended up returning to their prior stops; even then, Brady being available was unprecedented.

Some thought that the Chargers could entice Brady with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Derwin James and some pristine LA vibes, but Brady ultimately chose Tampa Bay. While missing out on Brady may have caused some in powder blue to shed tears, it ended up working out better in the long run.

Because the Chargers didn’t give Brady or another quarterback a lucrative deal, they were able to fill numerous holes on their roster. Telesco inked veterans Bryan Bulaga, Chris Harris Jr. and Linval Joseph to help solidify the squad. Had LA given Brady the two-year, $50 million deal he agreed to with Jason Licht, the Chargers likely would have been significantly worse in terms of their overall talent.

Moreover, the fact that the Chargers did not try to swing for the fences and acquire a star quarterback is especially prudent for the Steelers. It goes without saying that Los Angeles had much higher draft positioning (Pick No. 6 vs. No. 20), but the decision to draft Herbert and retain its other picks generated a more complete and young team.

By signing Mitch Trubisky, the Steelers may not have landed a franchise quarterback such as Deshaun Watson (public perception notwithstanding) or Derek Carr (if he even became available). But shopping multiple first-round picks would not have been the wisest given that the team isn’t just one or two positions away from contending.

2. Rebuilding an offensive line isn’t a one-year process

The Chargers did more than just add Bulaga in 2020; they exchanged Russell Okung for Trai Turner. While Los Angeles believed its OL had become reinforced, it improved by one spot in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking grade (31st in 2019 to 30th) and became the worst run-blocking unit in the league. Much of this could be attributed to Turner being injured, but cutting the guard nearly a year after the swing indicates the transaction didn’t pan out.

Telesco was well aware that he had to protect Herbert and bolster the team’s offensive line in 2021, and he did just that. Selecting Rashawn Slater at Pick No. 13 was one of the most prudent moves of the draft, as Slater became a Pro Bowler in his nearly unblemished rookie season. Moreover, the Chargers signed Corey Linsley, arguably the best center in football, as well as former Steeler Matt Feiler. These shifts proved crucial: LA moved up to 17th in pass-blocking and 12th in run-blocking.

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah recently issued a graphic outlining where recent Super Bowl winners obtained their offensive linemen, and it echoes what the Chargers did: infuse a mix of free agency and the draft. With holes at center, right guard and right tackle – plus potentially left tackle – the Steelers must use both avenues to fix their much-beleaguered offensive line.

3. Quarterbacks on rookie contracts pay infinite dividends

This idea parallels my first point, but hitting on a rookie quarterback creates a utopian scenario: a young star with an extremely cheap contract.

In 2022, Justin Herbert’s cap hit is slated to be under $7.25 million. For reference, that makes him the 11th-highest-paid player on the Chargers, though he’s arguably their most important piece. In fact, Herbert’s cap hit is lower than Jared Goff’s, Jake Matthews’, D.J. Humphries’, Baker Mayfield’s, Sam Darnold’s and Randall Cobb’s.

Having signed his deal in 2020, Herbert will presumably earn an extension as soon as next offseason. For now, though, his minimal salary is a steal in every sense of the word and was a catalyst for Los Angeles not only trading for Mack, but also in signing superstar corner J.C. Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million deal.

Without a doubt, Herbert’s rapid ascension is relatively rare. However, it indicates that if the Steelers are able to land a rookie quarterback — in this year’s draft or next — that shows immediate promise, they have an inherent gift that easily generates a four-year window to go all in.

4. Day 2 draft picks can matter just as much as first-round selections

Herbert wasn’t the Chargers’ only first-round pick in 2020; the team also selected linebacker Kenneth Murray with the 23rd overall pick. Most expected Murray to flourish in an off-ball role, but the former Oklahoma star has not clicked in the NFL. Murray posted a 54.4 and 34.0 overall grade in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and played just 47% of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps last year.

Aside from the first round, the Chargers found diamonds in the rough in the later rounds of that draft. The team picked RB Joshua Kelley in the fourth round – who finished second on the team with 354 rushing yards that year – and WR K.J. Hill – who is a solid depth piece.

Turning to this past draft, Slater was the squad’s crown jewel, but don’t look past their later picks, either. Nabbing Asante Samuel Jr. and Joshua Palmer in Rounds 2 and 3 appears to have landed Los Angeles two burgeoning, impact players on both sides of the ball for years to come.

The Steelers have consistently found talent on Days 2 and 3, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, Kevin Dotson and Pat Freiermuth. In his last draft, Kevin Colbert must proliferate such success to not only plug sizeable laps on the roster, but to also create a young, athletic squad built for success in the future.