Face of the Franchise: The Chargers' Tough Decision
Rarely does an NFL team see a franchise player leave town, either via trade or free agency. When it does happen--take Peyton Manning's departure from Indy to Denver for example--it takes a perfect storm of dysfunction to usher the split along. It follows, of course, that no organization should expect to have to deal with rumors concerning the future of multiple long-time contributors.
Unfortunately, the San Diego Chargers currently face the unexpected.
The issues started around the time of the draft, when QB Philip Rivers found his name included in a trade with Tennessee for the second overall pick. It partially made sense: Rivers would be back with the offensive mind of Ken Whisenhunt (with whom Rivers nearly reached 70% completion and posted the third-best QBR in the league in 2013), and Marcus Mariota would have a team already built around him, creating an environment in which he could succeed as a rookie. Obviously, nothing like that ever materialized, and Mariota quietly and quickly went second overall to the Titans. Even so, having a finger that close to the trigger on a franchise quarterback is disconcerting for the future.
News surrounding S Eric Weddle is even less encouraging. Like Rivers, he's entering a contract year, and has been very vocal throughout camp about his dissatisfaction with the team and their negotiations. ESPN's Eric Williams wrote last week about Weddle's frustrations:
"It's obvious that I'm not part of this organization's long-term plan. The NFL is a business, and I can accept that. I just wish the organization had been up front with me from Day 1."
Ouch. He's still attending camp, but Williams also reported that Weddle told his agent not to contact the Chargers after July 30 if they haven't reached a multiyear deal by that date.
The three most lucrative contracts on San Diego's roster--Rivers, Weddle, and TE Antonio Gates--all expire at the end of this season. They might have enough money to keep all three (they'll have upwards of $41 million in cap space), but the rumblings about Rivers and Weddle suggest they'll have to slap their precious franchise tag on one of them to get them to stay through 2016. The tag would probably be wasted on Gates; while he enjoyed one of the best statistical seasons of his career in 2014 (12 TDs and 821 yards on 69 catches), he's not worth the $9.32 million a franchised tight end will get under a projected $160 million cap. That leaves Rivers and Weddle as candidates, but which one makes more sense?
The Case for Franchising Rivers
Weddle is a terrific player. He's led the Chargers defense in tackles by a wide margin each of the past three seasons, while contributing 11 takeaways. He was the best player on a top-5 unit by pass yards allowed in 2014.
But he's not a quarterback.
In today's league, a good quarterback is the baseline requirement for competency. This reality means that San Diego, like any other team, is better equipped to deal with the loss of a safety than the loss of a signal-caller--especially one like theirs.
Rivers turns 34 this December, so he's not young by any means. That said, there's no reason to think he's facing significant decline. While last season was not as impressive as Rivers' rejuvenation under Whisenhunt, he still put up numbers to please Charger fans and Rivers fantasy owners alike. He tossed 31 TDs against 18 INTs, while accumulating 4,286 yards at a clip of 7.52 per attempt. He also posted a 66.5% completion rate, the second-best of his career.
His decline from great to very-good is likely in large part due to the problems on the offensive line, which plummeted from 8th in 2013 to 17th in 2014 by adjusted sack rate. Thankfully, the Chargers noticed and signed G Orlando Franklin out of Denver and T Joseph Barksdale out of St. Louis, both solid players that should shore up the line.
These signings, combined with the young offensive weaponry (WR Keenan Allen, TE Ladarius Green, and rookie RB Melvin Gordon) show that San Diego is committed to creating an offense around their quarterback. This level of investment makes franchising Rivers a no-brainer, if they have to choose between him and Weddle.
The Case for Franchising Weddle
Ultimately, however, it probably won't be a choice between the two, which is part of why the Chargers should absolutely tag Weddle after the 2015 season.
Even in the light of the pre-draft trade rumors, all recent news depicts a quarterback happy with his organization and eager to finish his career with them. Rivers called the idea of retiring a Charger "awesome", apparently putting to rest the rumblings about contract disputes and trades. If San Diego is able to negotiate a long-term deal with Rivers, there's no reason to franchise him, especially since Weddle's eventual departure looks more like a reality every day.
It also makes more monetary sense to franchise Weddle, because of the comparable salaries. This year, Rivers will cost the Chargers just over $17 million, while Weddle (who turns 31 in January) will make a shade over $10 million. Under a $160 million cap, the price to franchise a quarterback would be a staggering $20.7 million, while a safety's salary would come out to a far more manageable, realistic $10.7 million. Franchising Rivers means paying at least $3 million extra for a 34-year old QB who was probably staying anyway; franchising Weddle means a marginal increase for a 31-year old safety, who would otherwise leave.
As much as the team needs Rivers, their need for Weddle might outweigh the importance of protecting their investment on offense. As I mentioned earlier, their defense was good against the pass, but not very good overall. The Chargers were 13th in points allowed, and a painfully mediocre 25th in defensive DVOA. Sadly enough, this was an improvement on 2013, when they finished dead last in DVOA. Safeties are generally more replaceable than quarterbacks, but most safeties are not Eric Weddle. For a defense struggling to keep their heads above water, losing their veteran leading tackler will be a crushing blow.
If San Diego wants to (a) keep a franchise player and (b) have any semblance of a good defense after this season, they have to use their franchise tag on Weddle next offseason. Hopefully they can use that time to convince him to stay for the long haul.