Six Takeaways From Chargers Training Camp
After two days of joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Chargers have officially wrapped up their training camp for the 2021 NFL Season. The Chargers will treat their last preseason game like a regular-season game and have practices at the normal training facility before traveling to Seattle. That being said, what stood out about this specific training camp?
Chargers Communication On Point
When Brandon Staley was hired back in January, one of the things that he said in his introductory press conference was that he was going to be constantly preaching the importance of communication. This was considered a strength of his, especially after the reports of how he was able to help elevate the play of stars like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. Stories of how he took a cut-up of a whopping 90 plays specific to Ramsey, even going back to his college days, and detailed a plan of attack became the stuff of legend.
It has been clear from day one that Staley is a master of attention to detail, and that has carried over to the Chargers – at least so far.
Staley mentioned on Thursday that they split the joint practices into two fields. The Chargers offense against the 49ers defense on one field, and the Chargers offense against the 49ers defense on the other. Staley is going to call plays for the defense this year, and as such, he stayed on the side of the field with the defense. This left Joe Lombardi and the offensive staff to handle things on their own on the offensive side of the field. Staley said that outside of the banged-up offensive line struggling with the 49ers’ pressure, the operation of the offense remained smooth.
Staley also said on Thursday that his relationship with Derwin James – who will be calling plays for the defense – has been developing at a great pace. He even went as far as to say that he feels like he’s known James for ten years. One of the 49ers beat writers who were at practice pointed out something along those lines that really caught my attention:
stood behind brandon staley during team period and listening to him relay the call in, tell his players what’s about to happen, see it happen, then coach and correct on the fly in a span of 30 seconds was as good as it gets.
— KP (@KP_Show) August 19, 2021
The communication also stood out in the preseason game against the Rams, when Staley cited their pace of play and tempo not leading to any pre-snap penalties or unnecessary confusion. If they can do that with most of the backups, then that should definitely carry over with the starters.
Chargers fans will painfully remember the 2020 season for a variety of reasons, but the lack of communication and attention to detail specifically between Anthony Lynn and Shane Steichen will always be something that stands out to me. The quarterback sneak in Buffalo and the failure to kick a field goal against Atlanta are examples of this. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like Staley and his staff will have the same kind of issues. Watching their daily operation has been extremely impressive so far.
Justin Herbert Ready For Sophomore Leap
All offseason long, we’ve heard about Herbert’s 2020 Rookie Of The Year season being unsustainable or volatile. Critics will point to his success under pressure, and on third downs as areas where the former Oregon standout is likely to regress. However, these individuals fail to recognize the areas in which Herbert, and the Chargers by extension, can improve in his second season.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview PFF’s Eric Eager on the Guilty As Charged Podcast. One of the things he talked about with me was that Herbert needed to improve in the intermediate range, in order to take that next step and to really push defenses. His thought process is that teams will do their best to take away the deep ball, as they did with Patrick Mahomes.
This is one of the reasons why I loved the additions of Lombardi, who will bring much of the New Orleans offense with him, Jared Cook, and Josh Palmer. Not to mention the ongoing development of Donald Parham. All of those individuals will help develop this part of Herbert’s game, but he still has to go out and make the throws.
By all accounts, he has done that and then some. He was reportedly on fire during the scrimmage and played very well against the 49ers this week – a defense that Staley has the utmost respect for.
#Chargers HC Brandon Staley on the joint practices with 49ers: "I expect them to be one of the top defenses in the NFL. I felt like this week was a really good measuring stick for us. I love the way Justin Herbert played over the last two days, I know that."
— Guilty As Charged Podcast (@GACPodcast17) August 21, 2021
Add in Keenan Allen’s comments earlier this week and the Herbert hype train is starting off the 2021 season HOT, and frankly, it should be. He is locked in and should be expected to make a sizable leap this year.
Chargers Pass Rush Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
With the Departure of Melvin Ingram, the Chargers had a pass rush problem to solve. Unfortunately for that problem, it was lower on the priority list than solving the offensive line. Instead, the Chargers are banking on development from Uchenna Nwosu, the value from a cheap free agency deal for veteran Kyler Fackrell, and a day three draft pick on Chris Rumph.
Outside of the edge rushers, the Chargers will be hoping for breakout seasons from Jerry Tillery and/or Justin Jones, more pressures (and hopefully some sacks) from Linval Joseph, and production from second-level defenders when they come on blitzes.
Fackrell and Rumph have been pleasant surprises so far in camp, but they should not be expected to contribute at the level that Ingram did in his prime. And it appears that neither Nwosu nor Tillery will be making that leap either. I am/was higher on Tillery than most, but he has reportedly underperformed in camp. The same can be said for Nwosu, who was the worst-performing pass rusher on the team against the Rams and has struggled in camp. On paper right now, it seems as if the Chargers will have more of a Joey Bosa and Bos-ettes set up, as opposed to someone really capable of being that true number two pass rusher.
They will still be able to generate pressure on a consistent basis, despite the needed development from the Bos-ettes. The team will be blitzing much more often than they did with the previous regime, as evidenced by the first preseason game. Although they’ll hardly reach the rates of blitz-happy teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, it will certainly feel that way for Chargers fans who are used to the less than modest rates of the Bradley era. They’ll also be using stunts and games along the defensive line at a higher frequency, in order to seek out one-on-one matchups, particularly for Bosa.
They should be fine for this upcoming season, however, it appears like they’ll have to invest some premium capital in the offseason to find a true Robin for Bosa.
Offensive Line Upgraded, But Still A Work In Progress
The Chargers were in quite a bind this week against the 49ers when it comes to depth along the offensive line. They held Rashawn Slater and Bryan Bulaga out with minor injuries – Slater is dealing with a lower back injury, and Bulaga a hip flexor. Coach Staley emphasized that both should be fine long-term and that they would be able to play in a normal game setting. This left Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins to hold down the fort at the tackle spots, and Thursday’s practice was reportedly very ugly as a result. Then, Pipkins missed Friday’s practice which inserted rookie Brenden Jaimes into the starting lineup and kicked Matt Feiler to right tackle. Staley said the operation of the offense was fine, but the Chargers reportedly gave up between 15 and 20 sacks in the two days of practice against the 49ers’ defensive front.
The starting unit for the Chargers will be very much improved from last year’s unit, as I’ve written before. However, the depth will remain a work in progress this season – Tom Telesco said as much in his last press conference. Jaimes should prove to be a quality depth piece, but he is still a rookie and is learning how to play guard after starting 40 games at tackle at Nebraska. Scott Quessenberry is a quality backup center and arguably should have been starting last year instead of Dan Feeney. Beyond that, neither Pipkins nor Norton have really asserted themselves for the battle of swing tackle. I believe in the staff’s plan to ensure that Bulaga plays more often than last year, but the lack of development from Pipkins and Norton is concerning. The flexibility Feiler and Jaimes offer, as players who can play guard or tackle, will help mitigate some of the concern, but the Chargers will likely have to continue to invest premium capital in the unit next year.
The Chargers Are Loaded With Pass Catchers
Staley caught my attention last week when he dubbed their receiving room as the deepest he’s seen in his time in the NFL. While he’s only been in the league for a short amount of time, that comment spoke volumes to how he views this current group – and I think it extends to the tight ends and running backs as well.
Allen and Mike Williams are one of the better-performing wide receiver duos in the NFL. Then you have Austin Ekeler’s return to health and the addition of Cook. Add in the development of Palmer and the emergence of Parham and Tyron Johnson, and you get one of the deepest groups of pass-catchers in the league.
Jason Moore, KJ Hill, and Austin Proehl have all had their moments in training camp, heck even John Hurst has made some good plays. There have been times in the Chargers’ recent history where most of those players would have not only made their roster but played key roles. Jalen Guyton was the team’s third receiver last year and he’s arguably fifth this year.
As it pertains to the roster construction, it appears that they will keep six receivers this year. That sixth spot will come down to Hill, Proehl, and Moore. I think Hill will ultimately win that battle because he’s been the most active return man, and received the most snaps of any receiver on the team against the Rams. I hate to lose a guy like Moore who has had a very strong camp, and has worked with the first-team offense quite a lot while Palmer, Williams, and Johnson have dealt with some injuries; but the Chargers need that last receiver spot for a returner, and Hill simply gives them a more well rounded receiving option than Proehl does.
Derwin James is BACK Back
This particular takeaway is arguably the most important storyline of the Chargers training camp. Chargers fans know his value well enough, as he was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. Now that he’s finally healthy, and covering the likes of Allen, and George Kittle in practice, the rest of the football world is finally taking notice.
— Ryan Clark (@Realrclark25) August 20, 2021
As I said above, James will call plays for the Chargers, and Staley is going to use his unique chess piece all over the field. A lot of fans (myself included) have expressed concern over the depth in the secondary, but if James is healthy he solves a lot of the problems due to his versatility. At this point, he should be expected to make his second appearance on the All-Pro list at the end of this season.
There’s a lot of variance with the possible outcomes for the Chargers this year, but James staying healthy is one of the three most important things that need to happen in order for them to reach their ceiling. So far so good.