Examining The Chargers Defensive Depth Chart After The Draft
This is the second part of this series where we’ll go over every defensive position on the Chargers depth chart and go over the starters and backups. The Los Angeles Chargers used four of their nine draft picks on defensive players last weekend and added four undrafted free agents as well. The Chargers had some pressing needs on defense, and it appears that they checked those boxes – at least on paper. That being said, let’s get started.
Starters – Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu
Primary Backup – Kyler Fackrell
Developmental Pieces – Emeke Egbule, Chris Rumph II, and Jesse Lemonier
The Chargers will have one of the most efficient edge-rushing duos in the league this year with Bosa and Nwosu. They should be highly productive in Brandon Staley’s new scheme. One of the things Chargers fans should be most excited about for this new regime is how Staley will seek out one-on-one opportunities for Bosa, which is something that Gus Bradley almost refused to do in previous seasons. If Bosa can stay healthy, he could be a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate. That last sentence applies to Nwosu too, who could be a strong breakout candidate if he is able to stay healthy.
Fackrell comes over from the Giants in free agency and should fill the role previously held by Isaac Rochell as a rotational edge rusher and special teams player. He is a solid veteran to have on the roster but having him as the third-best edge rusher on the team is less than ideal. His skill set is better suited as the fourth edge rusher.
The biggest question mark from the draft picks for me is Rumph. A lot of analysts and Chargers fans are pegging him as a great pick but I have my concerns. He has the speed and athleticism off the edge that Staley seems to like but he lacks the natural bend and flexibility to turn the corners and needs to fill out his frame in order to effectively play the run. This staff has some great defensive coaches who should be able to develop him but I think he is much more of a long-term project than most people are letting on.
Egbule flashed some intriguing signs during his rare appearances last season. He was a sixth-round draft pick in 2019. Lemonier joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Liberty last season and only played in the final two games. The addition of Rumph could make it difficult for both Egbule and Lemonier to make the final roster this year.
The depth behind the Chargers’ two starting edge rushers is a little concerning at this point. They are putting a lot of faith in their ability to stay healthy, let’s hope it works out.
Starters – Linval Joseph, Jerry Tillery, and Justin Jones
Developmental Pieces – Cortez Broughton, Breiden Fehoko, Joe Gaziano, Frederick Smith Jr., Jared Goldwire, Forrest Merrill
The Chargers’ base defense under Staley will include a five-man front with Bosa and Nwosu on the edges. Tillery and Jones will line up over the guards, and Joseph over the center. When they move to sub-packages they will likely have a similar rotation as last year between the three starters.
Despite not having an offseason yet in his career and the previous coaching staff lacking a plan of attack with him, Tillery was able to have a mini breakout year for the Chargers last season. Fans continue to throw around the bust label with him but the reality is that defensive tackles generally take time to develop in the NFL and Tillery hasn’t really been given a fair shake in that department. Unlike his predecessors, Staley seems to have a plan for him and that should be exciting for fans.
Joseph didn’t record any sacks last year but he was very efficient as a pass rusher in terms of pressures. He also brought a stabling presence to the Chargers’ run defense. He played all 16 games and the Chargers will have to hope he can do that again.
Jones has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career so far, but when he has been on the field he has been productive. He is a strong run defender and not having to take on so many double teams this year should aid in his own development. According to his Instagram, he has also slimmed down quite a bit – something that should help him as a pass rusher.
The depth behind the three starters leaves much to be desired. Damion Square just signed with the Browns and his veteran presence will be missed. Broughton and Fehoko have flashed some good things in minimal action but the Chargers will need both of them to accelerate their development this year because the odds are that they will have to start some games at some point in the season.
Gaziano joined the Chargers last year as an undrafted free agent out of Northwestern and was a popular pick amongst fans to be the one free agent to make the roster. However, he got injured early on in training camp and was unable to show the previous regime what he had. He spent most of the year on the practice squad but did play minimal snaps in the team’s last two games. Staley mentioned him as somebody they like as an interior rusher in their new scheme.
Smith joined the Chargers last year as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas and spent the entire season on the practice squad. Goldwire is an undrafted free agent out of Louisville and is an explosive athlete. The test results he put up at his pro day were good enough to place in the 84th percentile among defensive tackles. Merrill is an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas State. He is a stout run defender and could fill Fehoko’s role on the practice squad.
Starters – Kenneth Murray and Drue Tranquill
Primary Backups – Kyzir White and Nick Niemann
Developmental Pieces – Cole Christiansen and Amen Ogbongbemiga
The Chargers will carry fewer linebackers on the roster than they did under the previous regime. Staley also didn’t have many quality linebackers on the Rams so it will be interesting to see how he uses this group of players. Murray and Tranquill will start and play a lot. Murray had offseason shoulder surgery but should be ready for training camp. He is in store for a monster season in year two. Tranquill will be coming back from his own injury after breaking his ankle in week one against the Bengals. He was a popular preseason breakout candidate choice but White could push him for a starting position.
White and Niemann represent the best depth on the roster and should be capable backups. Niemann was incredibly productive at the University of Iowa and tested off the charts at his pro day. He’ll start his career primarily playing on special teams, but if he’s thrust into action in case of emergency, Chargers fans should be confident in his ability to hold down the fort.
Christiansen joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Army and made a positive impact down the stretch of the season on special teams. Ogbongbemiga joins the team as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State. He is an intriguing prospect who was highly productive in college and was even named to the All-Big 12-second team twice. He was also named Oklahoma State’s most outstanding special teams player in 2018. The Rams only carried five linebackers on the active roster last year under Staley, so these two players will have to battle for that last spot in training camp.
Starters – Derwin James and Nasir Adderley
Developmental Pieces – Alohi Gilman, Mark Webb, and Ben DeLuca
This position group is easily the one with the most question marks of any on the roster. However, Staley seems confident in the players he has. James is one of the best and most versatile players in the sport but he has missed 27 out of the last 32 games. If he stays healthy, he should be a strong candidate for comeback player of the year. If he continues to miss games, the safety position will be in trouble. Despite all his shortcomings, Rayshawn Jenkins was at least a capable starter. The Chargers don’t have that kind of player on the roster behind James anymore.
Writing this article really made me realize just how many players on the defensive side of the roster have struggled with injuries. Adderley is another one of those players. His rookie season was cut short by a torn hamstring so last year was essentially his real rookie season. He struggled with some very inconsistent play all throughout the season, and never really got into a groove. I felt like the biggest issue was that he didn’t trust his instincts. He always seemed to be just a second too slow to the tackle or to the ball in coverage at every turn. It’s possible that the cover three scheme was simply a bad fit for him, and it’s pretty clear that the Chargers believe in his talent.
Behind the two starters, the Chargers have a former sixth-round pick, their seventh-round pick from this year, and an undrafted free agent from Charlotte. Webb is a really intriguing prospect with his size, length, and high-level IQ, but he will likely be counted upon to play starter-level snaps.
Staley struck gold last year with Jordan Fuller, a sixth-round pick himself, but it remains to be seen if that is an attribute of the staff that will continue or if that was simply a unique case. Last year at this time we all knew the Chargers made a mistake by not drafting a single offensive lineman, this year it feels like they made the same mistake with the safety position. I hope I’m wrong, but this group is one injury away from bringing back Jaylen Watkins or Jahleel Addae.
Starters – Michael Davis, Chris Harris, Asante Samuel Jr.
Primary Backups – Brandon Facyson, Tevaughn Campbell, and Ryan Smith
Developmental Pieces – John Brannon and Donte Vaughn
The Chargers made a lot of moves in this particular position group. They cut Casey Hayward, one of the franchise’s best cornerbacks. They extended Davis after he had a breakout season in 2020. They re-signed Facyson to a one-year deal. They signed Smith to become their special teams ace and provide depth behind the starters. Finally, they drafted Samuel Jr.
Davis will serve as the team’s top cornerback while Samuel Jr. develops. He’ll likely draw assignments against opposing teams’ best receivers more often than anyone else on the team. He’s an ascending talent and should benefit greatly from the incoming scheme change.
Harris’s familiarity with the new coaching staff and scheme should pay dividends for both sides. If he’s able to bounce back from the first serious injury of his career – and he did play really well down the stretch of 2020 – he could be in for a bit of mini-resurgence. His presence provides them with flexibility regarding Samuel Jr.’s development as well. He’s also in a contract year so Chargers fans should expect a very motivated Harris this season.
The overall theme of the Chargers offseason has been flexibility and versatility. That comes into play with the cornerbacks on the roster, and the selection of Samuel Jr. Both he and Harris can play in the slot and on the outside. Staley used Troy Hill and Darious Williams as interchangeable pieces last year with the Rams, and Harris and Samuel Jr. will be able to do the same thing for the Chargers. This will also provide a blueprint for next year if/when Harris leaves.
Facyson has drawn the ire of social media a few times but he has played well in stretches for the Chargers and is a sound tackler. He’s a solid backup and has the size and length that Staley seems to like on the outside. Campbell is another player who provides some positional flexibility. He played on the outside and in the slot last year and was decent given the circumstances. Smith reportedly signed with the Chargers because he felt like he had a better chance to play a larger role on defense than the other teams that were pursuing him but he will have to earn snaps over Facyson and Campbell if one of the starters does go down. Otherwise, he’ll bring some tremendous value on special teams as I said before.
Brannon joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Western Carolina. He spent the majority of the season on the practice squad but was activated for the season finale against the Chiefs. Vaughn joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame and stayed on the practice squad for the entire 2020 season.