Heading into Week 9 and coming off a Bye week is a great time to turn to our favorite subject, The Rookies. The Los Angeles Chargers refurbished a few of their position groups this year in an effort to try to fuel Brandon Staley’s dream of making his team deep and multiple. For a refresher, in the 2022 NFL Draft the Chargers acquired:
- Zion Johnson-17th overall pick from Boston College, Right Guard.
- JT Woods, 79th pick from Baylor, Safety
- Isaiah Spiller, 123th pick from Texas A&amp;M, Running Back
- Otito Ogbonnia, 160th pick from UCLA, Defensive Lineman
- Jamaree Salyer 195th pick from Georgia, Left Tackle
- Ja’Sir Taylor 214th pick from Wake Forest, Defensive Back/ Special Teams
- Deane Leonard, 236th pick from Ole Miss, Defensive Back/Special Teams
- Zander Horvath, 260th pick from Purdue, Full Back
Now, at the halfway point it’s time to ask the age-old question, are these new Chargers meeting expectations, or have they not performed up to their potential? Let’s take a closer look at each of their performances below and see how they stack up against the NFL’s initial draft profiles.
Chargers Rookie Evaluations
Zion Johnson: Exceeding Expectations
During the combine, Zion Johnson ranked first overall with 32 bench press reps for 225 pounds and ranked third among offensive linemen in the 20-yard shuffle with a time of 4.46. He has the size coupled with the speed to be effective. In his initial NFL draft profile, he was called a “phone booth guard” that has “knock-back pop at the point of attack with the ability to win the block in a test of strength.”
Looking at some of his film from college, it was clear that whenever he locked onto a target, he always dug in, and no matter how much the lineman tried to squirm their way around him, he made it almost impossible to get through. That same grit and savvy have translated into the NFL.
In watching the film from the Chargers Week 3 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Johnson locks onto people and really pivots, using great body control to stop them from getting into the pocket. And against the Chiefs game during Week 2, he really showed how much of a force he is to be reckoned with. Michael Danna did a spin move to try to elude Johnson and Johnson simply shuffles and holds strong to stop him from getting in.
Johnson is also able to partner well with others on the offensive line and one of his strengths is that he “shines as a double-team blocker with technical savvy.” It’s great to have such a strong bodied guard, as when you need that extra push to get into the end zone. Austin Ekeler needed that when he scooted by to get the score in Week 6 vs the Broncos. Johnson was the one to give Ekeler that extra nudge to help him across the goal line.
It hasn’t been all positive for Johnson. It was said during the draft that he had “some struggles adjusting to moving targets” and that’s definitely plagued him throughout the season. During the game against the Jags, he was able to cover Folorunso Fatukasi there was a moment where he was pushing up on Fatukasi and then Fatukasi switched to the inside. Johnson grabbed a hold of his jersey but just couldn’t keep up. And in the Broncos game, this same thing happened again Dre’Mont Jones. He pushed to the left side but Jones got around Johnson anyway to grab Justin Herbert as Herbert threw.
Johnson’s profile also said that he is better able to help his team with the “one-on-one rush” and that shows. If he can trap a lineman in his path and pivot enough to keep him within his orbit, Johnson is golden. But once he’s beaten, he’s beaten. And the more explosive of a lineman you have and the quicker that lineman is, the more difficult it becomes for Johnson.
Despite that, he’s been a real bright spot on this offensive line, and considering this is only his first year, he’s more than holding his own. His draft profile ultimately predicted that he would be a “plus starter” and that’s certainly accurate. He’s not only met expectations but often exceeded them and it’s only going to get better for him from here.
Otito Ogbonnia: Mostly Meeting Expectations
Otito Ogbonnia’s profile remarked that he “possesses adequate bull-rush potential” and “slides and swims into the A gap for a quick win.” Ogbonnia has only played 125 snaps total for his first five games, as he tends to split time with Sebastian Joseph-Day. He played the majority of those snaps at nose tackle and only a few at defensive right tackle.
Throughout each game though, he’s had trouble getting that A-gap penetration. During the Jags and Broncos games against the Chargers, he did manage to break through for one pressure on the quarterback during each. But that doesn’t happen often. And there was a moment during the Chiefs game where he couldn’t quite break through and opted instead to jump up to see if he could bat the pass, but didn’t succeed. He lacks the explosiveness that Joseph-Day has and moves a little slower.
Some of the weaknesses that were dictated were that he had “just a single season as a full-time starter” and that he “lacks agility and plays with heavy feet.” There’s no doubt he has the size and strength to get through, as when he’s against a block, he really gives it his all to try to get the leverage needed to get into the pocket. He just has trouble finding an opening, which is where his inexperience shows.
Daniel Popper of The Athletic says that he was drafted in particular to be a “run-stuffer” and he’s shown signs of that with the STOPs he’s had, and though he does rank a little lower in run defense on the team, that’s an area where he can improve and perhaps use some of that heavy footedness to really dig deep in that run defense. So far, considering it was predicted he would be an “average backup or special-teamer,” he’s been meeting expectations but sometimes dips below his capabilities.
Jamaree Salyer: Exceeding Expectations
Jamaree Sayler stepped into the spotlight with the Chargers when he took over at left tackle when Rashawn Slater sustained a season-ending bicep injury. Sayler was originally going to be a swing guard but because of his experience playing in various offensive positions at Georgia, he was the obvious choice.
Sayler for several games has done the best he can, considering he was thrust into this position a few games into the season. His best game was the first one he started against the Texans. His PFF pass-blocking grade was a 90.4% and though the Cleveland game was his worst at 35.3%, for the other games he hasn’t fallen below the 70s. He’s also only allowed nine quarterback pressures for the first 4 games he’s played.
In the Broncos game, there is a moment where he shoved Dre’Mont Jones to the right side and keeps pushing him that way until Jones falls down. One trait that was observed is that Salyer “extends and shoves gap runners off their path.” He does have trouble with some of the more explosive defenders like Bradley Chubb as there were moments where Chubb cut around him on the outside to pressure Herbert as well as to his inside.
Pre-draft scouting pointed out that “athletic rushers find their way to his edges” and “that his mirroring can be labored and slow.” It would also be great if his run-blocking grades caught up to match that of his pass-blocking grades, making him more of an all-around tackle. The overall consensus in his original profile was that he’d be a “good backup with the potential to develop into a starter” and that’s accurate. He’s not perfect but has definitely been exceeding expectations given his draft position and his rookie status.
Zander Horvath: Exceeding Expectations
Zander Horvath has become a great plug-and-play player for the Chargers. The game where he shined the brightest had to be the Chiefs where he really showed off his blocking and receiving skills. During that game, he was often set up in the ‘I formation’ with Sony Michel behind him and made a great block on Nick Bolton so that Michel could get through for a short gain.
And during another play, he was in that same formation and was able to run into the end zone and be completely unguarded to receive a pass from Herbert for a touchdown. He’s great at clearing space and staying with his mark, which has also helped him exceed in special teams.
He’s only played 186 snaps total but has definitely shown what he’s got in that short period of time. His profile said that he has the “size and strength to improve as a power back” and “that he has adequate pass pro potential” but one of his weaknesses was that he needed a “clearly defined entry point.” Though, there’s nothing wrong with having something simple such as a “clearly defined entry point,” spelled out within the scheme. He’s someone that I’m hoping to see more of, especially at a time when Herbert needs running and receiving weapons.
The profile concluded that he would be a “priority undrafted free agent” but I definitely think this offense needs him now more than ever and hopefully the Chargers will be his home for the foreseeable future.
Deane Leonard and Ja’Sir Taylor: Exceeding Expectations
I grouped these two Chargers rookies together as both have been playing mostly roles on special teams. Both have elevated the Chargers special teams unit this year, and even Daniel Popper of The Athletic remarked that “The punt team, in particular, has been drastically improved.’ The Chargers rank 12th in total punt EPA. They were 27th in that metric last season. They are giving up the fewest yards per punt return in the league this season at 3.00” and that “Rookies Deane Leonard and Ja’Sir Taylor have made an impact at gunner on punt.”
And let’s not forget the infamous muffed punt committed by the Broncos during overtime, all instigated by Taylor making the second-level blocker collide with the returner and Leonard recovering the punt. So the Chargers have been making moves on special teams, and it’s great for these two prospects, who were making headway during training camp but weren’t necessarily going to turn into starters or even regular backups.
One of Leonard’s strengths is “excellent top-end speed, posting a 4.37 40-yard dash at pro day” which is evident in his special team’s work as he has good man-to-man coverage skills. One of his weaknesses though was that he “loses position and leverage due to inexperience” and this came up during training camp and preseason games, such as when Lance McCutcheon beat him twice during the Rams preseason game.
This is the same for Taylor as it was mentioned during the draft that he “lost his positioning on both touchdowns allowed versus Army” and that definitely happened during the Rams game when he went over to help Leonard in coverage and literally collided with him. Like Leonard, he has good coverage skills and the speed to keep up.
It was concluded in his profile that Leonard would be a “candidate for bottom of the roster or the practice squad” and that Taylor would be a “priority undrafted free agent.” Both though seem to have found their groove on special teams and have certainly shown some new skills and a willingness to learn that will help them go far.
Isaiah Spiller and JT Woods: To Be Determined
I’m also including both of these Chargers together as both haven’t really gotten their starts yet.
Spiller has been out with an ankle injury but was finally able to play a few snaps in the Seattle game. He looked really explosive during training camp and at that time, you really saw some of his strengths on full display; such as “foot quickness” and “ability to recalibrate his run in the face of sudden roadblocks” but you also saw some of his weaknesses, such as his “need to lock into finishing mode sooner to add contact yardage” as he did often fight hard for those short gains during preseason games.
JT Woods played a few snaps on special teams during the Raiders and the Jags games, but other than that he hasn’t really been on the field much. He had trouble over the summer, especially during the Saints game in committing to the tackle. Something that was also noted during scouting. Lance Zierlein said he was “below average as a tackle finisher.”
Staley believes that he can learn how to do it better, but hasn’t played enough to see how far he’s developed. His combine results were impressive with a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash and he had practiced “playing in all safety alignments at Baylor” so perhaps he will get more of an opportunity as the Chargers get deeper into the season. Woods was predicted to be “a good backup with the potential to develop into a starter” while it was predicted for Spiller that he “will eventually be an average starter” so time will tell if these turn out to be true.