Four Chargers Training Camp Battles For Starting Jobs

Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver K.J. Hill. Photo Credit: MGoBlog | Under Creative Commons License
Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver K.J. Hill. Photo Credit: MGoBlog | Under Creative Commons License

Training camp has now begun, and so have the battles for starting spots on this team. This year, the Chargers return most of their 2019 starters, leaving only a few starting spots open. With no preseason games, these players will have to separate themselves with what they do in camp.

There are some spots like free safety and left guard that could be competitive. The problem is, we don’t know whether Rayshawn Jenkins’ job is on the line or if Dan Feeney is still fighting with Forrest Lamp for snaps.

For many players, just earning a spot on the roster is an uphill battle but here I am focusing on the starters. Playing time for these guys will be directly affected by their performance in camp. All of these players have a legitimate chance of winning, or keeping, starting jobs.

Four Chargers Training Camp Battles For Starting Jobs

Wide Receiver Three: K.J. Hill vs Joe Reed vs Jalen Guyton 

Receiver Andre Patton was cut over the weekend, giving a little more clarity into this battle. Now Jalen Guyton slots in against the rookies, because of one reason: speed. In Head Coach Anthony Lynn’s latest comments he mentioned that what he’s looking for in his WR3 is speed. 

Guyton came out of nowhere last season after the Chargers found themselves thin at receiver. He managed to run only 13 routes, with two targets and zero receptions. One thing he can do is burn. He was a legitimate deep threat at North Texas and ran the fastest 40-yard dash of this group (4.35). He’s not a complete receiver but gives them a field-stretching option. 

K.J. Hill will not be winning this job if it comes down to a foot race. Hill’s draft stock plummeted with a 4.67 (40) but that’s not how he wins routes. Hill was arguably the best route-runner in the class and destroyed single coverage. He’s deceitful and uses a blur of foot speed and head fakes to shake defensive backs. He might lack top-speed but he’s pretty explosive out of his breaks and constantly creates separation. The only thing going against him is that he plays primarily out of the slot, where Keenan Allen lines up for about half his routes. 

Joe Reed is the wild card of the group. In college last year, he was the nation’s top kick returner but was held back as a receiver. His tape was filled with some of the worst quarterback play I’ve watched. It did lead to some miraculous catches though. Reed’s route-running needs to be developed, but it’s easy to see what intrigued the Chargers. He’s also magic with the ball in his hands. His field vision is incredible and he shows a great ability to string cuts together and find the open space. I also think his game speed was faster than his 40-time (4.47). 

There’s no clearcut option, and this spot will be won during camp. There’s a good chance that one of these guys doesn’t even make the roster. Rookie receivers can struggle early on, but I would give the edge to Reed with his combination of speed and playmaking ability. 

Defensive Tackle: Jerry Tillery vs Justin Jones 

Last year this was also a training camp battle I was looking forward too, but Tillery was recovering from a torn labrum. Jones was the week one starter and went on to start twelve games total. Tillery ended up starting only three. After a disappointing rookie season, the Notre Dame product still has much to prove. 

After being taken in the first round of the 2019 Draft, Jerry Tillery had immense expectations. He was tasked with being the interior disruptor the Chargers had sorely missed. Most importantly he was supposed to help create favorable match-ups for pass-rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. As a rotational player last season, the rookie got bullied. 

Tillery mustered just two sacks on the year in 186 pass-rushing snaps. He also graded as the lowest interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus out of 119 players with enough snaps to qualify. As a pass-rusher, he had a handful of splash plays but was inconsistent. As a run defender, he got bullied and driven off the ball too easily. At one point, he was even a healthy scratch. Going into this offseason healthy, Tillery has to come back much stronger than last year. 

Justin Jones is headed into his third season with the team and is the incumbent starter. Jones was much improved in 2019 and played well, specifically against the run. The problem is, he has yet to make an impact as a pass-rusher. In his first 27 games, Jones has managed only half a sack and minimal pressure. If he can’t produce in this area, he will continue to lose snaps. 

There’s no question that the team would like Tillery to be a much bigger part of the defense this year. He undoubtedly has more natural pass-rushing talent but has to show he can handle the running downs. The addition of Linval Joseph should help both of these guys get more favorable matchups. 

Left Tackle: Trey Pipkins vs Sam Tevi

I was surprised that the Chargers didn’t bring more competition to this position in free agency or the draft. I was on-board the Jason Peters bandwagon, but now he’s off the table. Now the team finds itself woefully inexperienced at left tackle even though this could be a competitive battle. It seems like these decisions were made based on the team’s confidence in second-year player Trey Pipkins. 

I was as surprised as any when the Chargers took a Division II tackle in the third round of the 2019 draft. It was a reach, but it made sense to get a developmental player with Russell Okung still on the books for two years. Who knew he would only play six more games for the team. It did get rookie Trey Pipkins some valuable playing time, getting in on 251 offensive snaps. The problem was he struggled. 

It’s to be expected for someone making that gigantic leap in talent to have a tough time early on. In those limited snaps, Pipkins allowed four sacks and committed three penalties. When he was beaten, it was usually pretty bad. There were too many times his footwork was sloppy and he was forced to overextend and make mistakes.

Physically, Pipkins has all the tools to succeed with a big frame and giant wingspan. He also fits athletically into what the Chargers want to do switching to a more wide-zone running scheme. He had some good flashes in 2019, but it’s hard to feel very confident in a full-time role in 2020. 

Sam Tevi is a former college defensive tackle who transitioned the other side his last couple years at Utah. The Chargers took him in the 6th-round of the 2017 draft and he’s manned the right tackle spot the last two seasons. Tevi has gotten better, but it still hasn’t been good enough.

He is near the top of the league in pressures allowed with 101 between 2018-2019. He also allowed 16 sacks in that span. Now with Bryan Bulaga taking over on the right side Tevi finds himself in a battle for left tackle. General Manager Tom Telesco said Tevi has “very good left tackle feet”, but it’s tough to have confidence in that. As of now, Tevi seems like a below-average option if he wins the job

There are a couple of dark horse candidates as well with former XFL player Storm Norton and former college left tackle Forrest Lamp. Although intriguing, the two have combined for two NFL starts and both were Lamp at guard.

With almost no proven talent, new offensive line coach James Campen will have to work some magic. Trey Pipkins is clearly the leader in the clubhouse now. The Chargers will have to bank on some massive developmental strides in year two.

Weakside Linebacker – Kenneth Murray vs Nick Vigil  

Many people might think that this isn’t a training camp battle, assuming Kenneth Murray will start right away. The first-round pick was a star at Oklahoma and is undoubtedly the most talented linebacker on the team. However, the Chargers usually try and work their picks in as backups and progressively move them up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the spot is open to start. 

Nick Vigil came over to the Chargers on a 1-year deal this offseason after four seasons in Cincinnati. The former Bengal 3rd-round pick started 37 games over the last three years. He started at multiple linebacker spots in his career but seems to fit best for Los Angeles as the weak side backer. 

Nick Vigil isn’t flashy, but he’s solid. You can tell that he watches a lot of film because most of the time he seems to be in the right spot. He hasn’t been a great run defender. He tends to overrun his gaps and gets to his spots too soon leading to cutback lanes. He will also have to crack down on missed tackles after missing 15.9% of his in 2019. 

One spot where he made strides last year was as a pass defender. He does a good job of being physical with backs near the line-of-scrimmage and showed good zone awareness. Last season he allowed just 5.2 yards per attempt and a Passer Rating of 72.9. 

Murray was a stud in college and made his name with speed and physicality. He lived around the line and repeatedly made plays in the backfield with lightning-quick reactions. He should also give a boost to the Chargers pass-rush as he is an incredible Blitzer as an off-ball linebacker. 

One thing we didn’t see a lot of was drops into zone coverage. When he did, it came with mixed results and he didn’t seem comfortable. In man coverage, he was much better. He also tackles too high for backs in the league and will need to square people up.

The Chargers have already raved about Murray’s ability and leadership. It certainly seems, even in pandemic times, they want him on the field as soon as possible. His rookie learning curve will be steep, but the impactful plays should outweigh the mistakes. Vigil should have a big role on Special Teams. More than that, he has strengths in coverage to spell Murray while he learns. The sooner Murray can get up to speed, the better this defense will be.

Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver K.J. Hill. Photo Credit: MGoBlog | Under Creative Commons License

Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver K.J. Hill. Photo Credit: MGoBlog | Under Creative Commons License