Early look at the Chargers’ 2023 defensive free agents

Highlighting the Chargers’ defensive players set to hit the market after this upcoming season and whether or not they will be re-signed.

The Chargers currently have about $16.5 million in cap space left for 2022.

While Tom Telesco historically uses roughly $7 million of that on in-season acquisitions, that still leaves close to $9.5 million that should be rolled over onto the 2023 cap. It’s an important number to keep an eye on with a few key contributors set to hit free agency.

With that being said, here’s an early look at the defensive players Los Angeles will need to decide on next offseason.

Likely to be Retained

Derwin James, S

Drue Tranquill, LB

Nasir Adderley, S

James is a franchise cornerstone and has made a point of stepping into a leadership role during OTAs this offseason. He was also one of the representatives at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new team facility in El Segundo in mid-May, along with QB Justin Herbert. While his extension isn’t done yet, the two-time All-Pro doesn’t seem worried about it, saying last week that it’ll “take care of itself”. Ideally, Los Angeles locks him up before the season even starts, because it’s clear that they don’t intend to let James hit the open market. So expect big money, but perhaps not market-setting numbers given James’ injury history.

Adderley had his best season as a pro in 2021, earning a 66.2 PFF grade for the year. While he’s had his ups and downs, playing alongside a healthy James has helped elevate Adderley’s game to new heights. There are still a few times where his pursuit angles could be better, but he only recently turned 25 and still has plenty of time to grow even further. Remember that this is a player who had almost all of his rookie year in 2019 taken from him due to injury and then dealt with the COVID-19 impacted offseason in 2020. The fact that he took a step forward when healthy with a more routine offseason in 2021 should be a good sign. I expect him to be back beyond 2022.

Tranquill is the hardest one of these to nail down. On the one hand, he’s talented enough to be retained. He seems to be well-liked in the locker room, considering Herbert and corner Asante Samuel Jr. have both recently appeared on Tranquill’s podcast. But on the other hand, we just watched this regime let Kyzir White walk after his best season as a pro. Brandon Staley’s defense largely seeks to eliminate the concept of the linebacker with a healthy dose of 5-1 fronts. However, Tranquill is arguably LA’s best linebacker heading into 2022, and I choose to believe another season of solid play will be enough to convince the front office that he deserves to stick around.

Make or Break Season

Jerry Tillery, IDL

Christian Covington, IDL

The fact that this is a make-or-break season for Tillery shouldn’t come as a surprise after Los Angeles declined his fifth-year option. What was surprising, however, was the fourth-year pro’s absence from the first week of OTAs, perhaps a sign that the former first-rounder is less than thrilled with how things are going. It’s suddenly a heated battle for snaps along the defensive line. Staley has said that outside of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, it will essentially be an open competition for reps. Recent signing Morgan Fox is familiar with the defensive system and seems like an easy choice as Tillery’s replacement in the starting lineup should it come to that. Rookie Otito Ogbonnia is also a candidate to eat into his snaps. I lean towards the opinion that Tillery will be in a different uniform in 2023, but I do hope that he can find a more stable footing this season.

It’s a similar outlook for Covington, who I think could be a surprise roster cut before the 2022 season even opens if he’s not at his sharpest during camp. Joseph-Day, Johnson, Ogbonnia, Fox, and Tillery seem likely to make the roster, and LA only kept five defensive linemen last season. A sixth is expected this year, with it likely coming down to Covington versus Breiden Fehoko, who was one of the better run stoppers on last year’s team and would provide quality depth. Maybe Covington’s veteran presence is enough to keep him on the team, but I think he’d have to elevate his play from 2021 to earn another contract. That’s not to say he was bad in 2021, but the quality of the position group has improved since then.

Too Early to Tell

Kyle Van Noy, EDGE

Bryce Callahan, CB

Morgan Fox, IDL

Troy Reeder, LB

All four players were signed this offseason to one-year deals, but all four should see time at some point or another. Van Noy is this year’s Kyler Fackrell, the third pass rusher on a prove-it deal. I’m interested to see if Staley leans into his versatility to manufacture some linebacker production as well, especially in those 5-1 fronts where Van Noy could drop into a more traditional LB role from the line of scrimmage.

Callahan will be part of what looks to be a healthy rotation at corner while pulling double duty as a mentor for Asante Samuel Jr., a player with similar traits to Callahan’s. Expect him to see most of his reps in the slot when LA wants to keep Samuel on the outside, but there will also be plenty of times where Samuel moves inside to get Michael Davis some live reps on the boundary. Staying healthy will be the big key for Callahan, who’s never played every game in an NFL season.

Despite being on the market until May after being released by Carolina, I think Fox will be competing for a starting role in powder blue. I imagine he’ll end up splitting time with Tillery, but Fox brings better run defense ability without trading in too much value as a pass rusher. Returning to Staley’s defensive system, which earned him the two-year, $8 million contract from the Panthers in the first place, should also help him return to form.

Reeder should primarily be a special teams and depth addition, considering the Chargers rarely put three linebackers on the field at once. With Tranquill and Kenneth Murray set to hold down the two starting jobs, he’ll mostly get rotational snaps and fill in for injuries. However, considering his familiarity with the defensive scheme from his time on the Rams, he should be at least serviceable if pressed into full-time action.

Kyle Van Noy’s championship pedigree, versatility to be integral to Chargers’ success

Kyle Van Noy brings two Super Bowl rings and a do-it-all skillset to the Los Angeles Chargers.

As the Chargers revamped their roster this offseason, one of the things Brandon Staley factored into the players he brought in were those with championship pedigrees.

Staley accomplished that early in free agency with the additions of J.C. Jackson, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and Troy Reeder, all of whom have held up the Lombardi Trophy at some point in their careers.

However, his work did not stop there, as Staley signed eight-year pro Kyle Van Noy, who has two Super Bowl titles under his belt.

“Something about me, I love winning,” Van Noy said. “I don’t care about stats. Most people do. That’s all fine and dandy. But at the end of the day, when you get to hold up the trophy, nobody really can say nothing. I want to be able to do that.”

Van Noy, 31, has spent time with the Lions, New England, and the Dolphins, where he racked up 28.5 career sacks, 424 total tackles, and forced ten turnovers: seven fumbles and three interceptions.

Most recently, with the Patriots in 2021, Van Noy had five sacks, 66 tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception.

Beyond bringing in players with a winning mentality, Staley sought out those who would help improve a defense that finished No. 26 in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2021.

That meant getting the right ones to fit his scheme.

With position versatility being highly coveted in Staley’s system, it’s something that Van Noy brings to the table.

“A position that’s specifically defined for him,” Staley said when asked about Van Noy’s position.

Van Noy will contribute in various ways for the Chargers, but his bread and butter will be rushing the passer behind Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.

Van Noy has amassed at least 20 pressures and four sacks in the past five seasons.

Off the edge, Van Noy plays with a quick-thinking mind, closing burst, and the motor that allows him to patch moves together and affect the backfield action due to his effort.

Van Noy will also be used as a rusher from the inside.

Van Noy is effective on stunts/loops, utilizing a sense of timing, foot quickness, and short-area burst.

Further, Van Noy will provide some flex as an off-ball linebacker.

Against the run, Van Noy has quick read/react skills, and functional field range and is excellent in pursuit when he has a runway, chasing from the backside or making plays outside the numbers.

Against the pass, Van Noy has a knack for getting his hands on the football, with ten passes defended coming last season. His 83.9 coverage grade in 2022 was the highest among all linebackers, per Pro Football Focus.

Van Noy has an outstanding awareness and timing to make plays in coverage, following the eyes of the quarterback.

While most of his responsibilities came in zone coverage, Van Noy has the athleticism to match up with tight ends and running backs.

The star power of Justin Herbert is one thing, but the Chargers will be heavily relying on their defense as the driving force in a potential Super Bowl run, and Van Noy will be integral to the team’s success.

“That’s how he (Brandon Staley) and the owner want it,” Van Noy said about Los Angeles’ sense of urgency to win a championship. “Everybody in the building feels like they have something special going on.”

Chargers announce start date for 2022 training camp

The NFL announced the report dates for every team.

The Chargers are less than three months from opening up regular season play against the Raiders. Before that, the team will spend a good chunk of time on their practice field, where players will fight for starting spots and a shot at the 53-man roster.

The NFL announced that the team’s rookies will return to Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, CA on July 19, with the veterans set to arrive a week later on July 26.

Below are the report dates for every team.

3 Chargers players under the most pressure entering training camp

A few players are under pressure to keep their starting job, live up to expectations, or try to make the final regular-season roster.

Every player on the Chargers is facing some type of pressure.

Even the top players like Justin Herbert, who isn’t fighting for a roster spot or his starting job, are still under pressure as he is seen as the guy to lead the team to their first Lombardi Trophy.

However, a few players are under pressure to keep their starting job, live up to expectations, or try to keep a job and make the final regular-season roster.

That said, here are three players with the most to prove when training camp begins next month.

DT Jerry Tillery

Tillery, the former first-round pick, has failed to live up to his draft billing and is entering the final year of his contract, as the team did not pick up the fifth-year option. A starter last season, Tillery will now have to compete with the team’s offseason additions: Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Morgan Fox, and rookie Otito Ogbonnia. Tillery’s best asset is rushing the passer, while he’s been a liability against the run. The Chargers kept five defensive linemen on their 53-man roster last season. Battling with the guys mentioned and Breiden Fehoko, Forrest Merrill, and Joe Gaziano, not only is Tillery’s playing time not guaranteed, his spot on the roster could be in jeopardy if he doesn’t perform to standards.

LB Kenneth Murray

Murray’s sophomore season was not all sunshine and rainbows. Murray dealt with ankle issues since training camp last year, and that stunted his development. He spent six weeks on the injured reserve, and some time on the COVID-19/Reserve list. When on the field, Murray struggled with missed tackles, over-pursuing ball carriers, and struggling to shed blocks and work off contact. Murray ended up experiencing a new position as an edge defender late in the season when the team was limited with players at the spot, which was a challenge. Murray had ankle surgery in early April, and Staley said the hope is the former first-round pick will be ready for training camp. With the team likely to run more five-man fronts in nickel packages with only one linebacker on the field, Murray must prove that he’s capable of resorting back to starter status. Drue Tranquill, second-year players Nick Niemann and Ogbongbemiga and newest addition Troy Reeder will also be vying for that playing time.

OT Trey Pipkins

The starting offensive line is nearly complete after adding first-round pick, Zion Johnson. However, the right tackle position is still up in the air. It will be a battle between last year’s starter, Storm Norton and Pipkins, the fourth-year player. I have said it before, but I firmly believe that Pipkins has the leg up for the job. Pipkins played well in his only two starts in 2021, both in pass protection and run blocking, and has spent this offseason working with highly touted offensive line developer Duke Manyweather. Meanwhile, Norton had his fair share of struggles, allowing 60 pressures and nine sacks in 2021. Keeping Justin Herbert upright is imperative and Pipkins will have his work cut out for him in a division that now has new additions, Chandler Jones (Raiders) and Randy Gregory (Broncos), to go with Maxx Crosby and Bradley Chubb. At the same time, the Chiefs return Frank Clark and Chris Jones.

Austin Ekeler needs Chargers’ running backs to step up

Running back will be one of the most monitored positions during the Los Angeles Chargers training camp.

Running back has been one of the larger points of discussion in the Chargers fandom this offseason, but Austin Ekeler gave us a glimpse into the potential future.

“I was mainly a special teams guy, and then I was splitting with Melvin [Gordon], and now we’re in a position where I’m looking for some of these young guys to come up and earn some more reps,” Ekeler said.

The sixth-year pro called the running back by committee approach his “upbringing” and something he wants to work back towards this season after logging a career-high 206 carries in 2021.

For Ekeler, longevity is a focus. He said on Wednesday that “I wanna play a long time, so I want guys to come in and earn some reps.” But despite these desires, the candidates to contribute as complements to Ekeler are far from proven.

“I want someone to be like, no, we wanna get this guy in here because he’s showing he can play.”

You could easily argue that in 2021, none of the backfield options behind Ekeler saw time because they showed they could play. While Justin Jackson was the best amongst them, the Chargers elected not to retain his contract. He’s now at Cardinals minicamp on a tryout basis.

2021 rookie Larry Rountree III averaged a paltry 2.4 yards per carry, while second-year pro-Joshua Kelley averaged 3.1. Meanwhile, Ekeler plugged away for 4.4 YPC. It’s little wonder why Ekeler said that “all those guys are gonna have to grow.”

Ekeler was asked a number of times about rookie Isaiah Spiller, who seems poised to take over that secondary running back position. While the veteran couldn’t give too much of a character assessment considering he met Spiller earlier this week, he did say that the rookie has stood out in terms of being vocal in the meeting room.

Ekeler talked at length about what his role as a team leader means for guys like Spiller, especially in terms of helping them find ways to avoid getting overwhelmed.

At the end of the day, Ekeler said, “I want these guys to come challenge me.” To him, that means an obligation to help them be the best football players and men off the field they can be. The sixth-year pro yearns for competition, at one point asking the other guys to “bring it”, because that atmosphere only helps him be at his best as well.

At the end of the day, I think it’s unlikely that any of Spiller, Kelley, or Rountree are going to take a huge amount of carries away from Ekeler. It’s more likely that they become embroiled in battles further down the depth chart, both against one another and against undrafted rookies Kevin Marks Jr. and Leddie Brown, both of whom will be eager to try to follow in Ekeler’s footsteps from the anonymous camp body to the star-quality starter.

Spiller is and has been since the day he was drafted, the most likely player to replace Justin Jackson’s 68 carries from a season ago. But first and foremost, he’ll have to adjust to being an NFL player in a new city and new offense. Kelley is the highest investment on the roster in terms of draft capital, but he’s had ball security issues since entering the pros and will need to prove he can hold on to the rock.

Rountree profiles as a power back, but a lack of plus vision held him back even in short-yardage situations as a rookie. Perhaps another year to marinate in Joe Lombardi’s offense unlocks something in him. Brandon Staley did also say Wednesday that both Kelley and Rountree have approached their potential roles on special teams with a renewed mindset this offseason.

Whoever it may be, it’s clear Ekeler wants a running mate as he had with Melvin Gordon. It’s a proposition that’s beneficial to both team and player: Ekeler stays fresh and has a longer career, the Chargers get an additional playmaker and don’t run their established one into the ground. The only question now is who it’ll be.

WR Jalen Guyton draws praise after standing out at Chargers OTAs

Brandon Staley highlighted Jalen Guyton as a standout player.

While position battles won’t take shape until training camp begins next month, organized team activities (OTAs) is still plenty for coaches to take away from practices with the new season’s roster.

For the Chargers, wide receiver Jalen Guyton was a player who raised eyebrows throughout the sessions.

Guyton, who will be competing with Josh Palmer for the third spot at the position, shined not only at catching the football but also on special teams.

“Jalen Guyton was fantastic in the offseason,” Brandon Staley said. “This guy made a lot of big plays for us in the spring. Really did a nice job on special teams. We kind of challenged him to be a factor in the kicking game. I think he’s looked really good out there.”

Last season, Guyton turned 48 targets into 31 catches for 448 yards (14.5 yards per reception) and three touchdowns.

Known for his great size and speed combo at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds with a 4.3 40-yard dash, the coaching staff is using that to their advantage by lining Guyton up at gunner with the punt team.

“To be a good receiver, you have to beat press, so that’s a natural part of your job,” Staley said of Guyton playing gunner. “Trying to create as much value for him as possible. Understanding that’s going to be a big factor in him being in the league for a long time and hopefully making his way in this league.”

A gunner is a member of the special teams in charge of getting down the field and tackling the kick returner on kicking plays.

As new special teams coordinator, Ryan Ficken looks to construct his best personnel, Guyton could ultimately be a valuable piece for his group.

What addition of Bryce Callahan means for Michael Davis, Asante Samuel Jr.

The Chargers have plenty of options in the secondary.

It’s never too early for Brandon Staley to start tinkering with his defense.

That includes these summer days leading up to training camp, and the Chargers’ head handyman was already in his toolbox adjusting the roles and designations of his secondary.

The first-team defense operated out of the nickel package during the 11-on-11 period during Tuesday’s minicamp session, according to The Athletic’s Daniel Popper. However, the setup looked a bit different from last season.

Star-studded free-agent acquisition J.C. Jackson manned one of the outside corner spots, while second year rising talent Asante Samuel Jr. was his wingman on the opposite side. Bryce Callahan, who joined the team in the offseason after a three-year stint with the Broncos, suited up as the slot defender.

That left Michael Davis, one of the team’s primary outside cornerbacks in 2021, on the sidelines while the first team practiced. Early observation would imply Davis is now the fourth cornerback on the roster and will be rotated in when needed, and that Callahan is the top candidate for slot duties.

Staley likes what he sees from Callahan so far. He praised Callahan’s quick thinking and ability to react with anticipation, as well as his vision for developments in the offense. Discussing Callahan’s fit in the nickel, Staley was thorough in his explanation of how the cornerback’s skills are a match for his system.

“He’s got a unique combination of quickness and then strength in his lower body,” Staley told the media on Tuesday. “He’s not a small guy that gets pushed around because he’s got strong lowers. But he’s also got long speed, which is rare. You have some nickels that are quick. They have quickness, but they don’t have deep speed. Bryce has quickness and deep speed, and he has good ball skills. So, you put all that together, and he’s got good toughness and he’s a good tackler, underrated blitzer, and I think if you look at his production since he’s come into the league, it’s reflective of those qualities.”

The addition of Callahan accomplishes two things. For starters, Callahan’s strengths complement Staley’s defensive philosophy and allow the defense to remain agile and explosive whenever the nickel package is required.

Secondly, Callahan playing the slot maximizes the amount of time Samuel will be on the field. While Samuel is seeing slot reps and spent time at the position as a rookie, the Chargers value his fluidity and ball skills at the outside spot more. With Callahan defending the slot receiver, Samuel can remain in coverage against the X or Y threats.

Furthermore, if Samuel adjusts well to a full-time outside corner spot, it allows other secondary playmakers like Derwin James and Nasir Adderley to make an impact elsewhere on the field.

Jackson earned his lockdown stripes during his time in New England. It’s likely the Chargers will trust him with a healthy amount of one-on-one matchups. It wouldn’t be surprising if it was in the details of his $82.5 million contract.

However, if Samuel gains the same confidence, it will give Staley more schematic freedom to cleverly craft the pass rush and further confuse offenses.

Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack heap praise on each other

Chargers’ Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack discussed what it could mean to be potentially the best pass-rushing tandem in the NFL.

Quarterbacks, the past few seasons, had to worry about Joey Bosa coming off the edge whenever they faced the Chargers. But now, they will have another terror in their faces in Khalil Mack, who was acquired via trade.

Between his time with the Raiders and Bears, Mack has a resume that includes the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, three All-Pro selections, six Pro Bowl nods, and four straight years with double-digit sacks from 2015 through 2018.

Up to this point in the offseason stage, Mack has been limited as he is coming off a foot injury that forced him to miss the final ten games of the 2021 season. Still, the star-studded edge defenders have steadily been feeding tips to each other.

“It’s amazing. Just to have another guy like that to lean on, to look at,” Bosa said about Mack. “He’s great to talk to. Along with that, he’s obviously an unbelievable player, so having a guy like that on the other side is going to be really fun.”

Bosa added that he has looked up to Mack since he was a young player in the NFL and that their opposite skill sets will complement each other’s perfectly.

Mack will not only benefit from rushing opposite another premier pass rusher but playing for Brandon Staley, who boasts a similar scheme to former head coach Vic Fangio.

The year Staley was outside linebackers coach in Chicago in 2018, Mack enjoyed a solid campaign that year, finishing with 68 pressures, 48 hurries, and 12.5 sacks.

“That’s the thing. Strangely enough, the defensive calls are pretty much all the same. It’s just different wording,” Mack said on the defensive scheme. “Just figuring out the different tangibles as far as what coach Staley and the defensive staff want from myself, first and foremost, making sure I’m able to affect games the way I know how to affect games.”

Mack said it’s going to be very fun playing with Bosa, calling him “very smart,” adding that he’s looking forward to their joint film sessions during the season.

Last season, Los Angeles ranked 19th in pressure rate overall, and on third-and-longs, the team ranked 25th in pressure rate. Now, with Mack’s explosive power and burst and Bosa’s athleticism and hand usage to threaten blockers, these numbers should improve drastically.

Chargers’ Derwin James limited at mandatory minicamp

Chargers safety Derwin James underwent shoulder surgery in February.

The Chargers opened up their mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. While the team had every player in attendance, not everyone participated in all of the drills, including star safety Derwin James.

According to head coach Brandon Staley, James had surgery on the labrum in his left shoulder after the Pro Bowl in February. As a result, he was limited to 11-on-11 walk-through drills at a jogging pace.

“Derwin didn’t participate in any of the seven-on-seven this spring because of him coming off the labrum surgery,” Staley said. “We wanted to make sure he stayed out of the competitive seven-on-seven. He did all the individual work.”

Staley called it “precautionary,” and that James should be ready to go when training camp starts next month.

In 15 games last season, James had two interceptions, five passes defended and three forced fumbles. This came after being limited to five games in his sophomore season and missing all of the 2020 season with a knee injury.

Chargers excited about Mark Webb’s potential in Year 2

A knee injury kept Mark Webb from seeing the field more in 2021.

The Chargers will have some new members in the secondary, but a few familiar faces will also be vying to make contributions in 2022. Among them is second-year Mark Webb.

Drafted in the seventh round of the 2021 NFL draft, Webb appeared in seven games. Two of them were on defense, including Week 3 against the Chiefs when Derwin James missed the second half with a shoulder injury.

While his playing time was limited, Webb was on his way to seeing the field more frequently, but a knee injury that landed him on the injured reserve stopped that from coming to fruition.

Webb is still rehabbing his injury and has been out of the team’s organized team activities (OTAs) up to this point, but the plan is for him to be ready for training camp.

“He’s going to add a lot of competition in the secondary, we’re expecting a lot from him,” Brandon Staley said. “He’s a guy that was on the verge of playing a lot of football for us and then he had the injury. We’re hopeful for him, and I’m excited to see him compete.”

With Webb’s return, he will supply safety depth along with rookie JT Woods and Alohi Gilman behind James and Nasir Adderley.

Should he stay healthy, Webb has the skillset to play both in the slot (Star) and a sub-package safety-linebacker hybrid role (Money).