Three Defensive Player of the Year Candidates for the Chargers
It should be no surprise that the Los Angeles Chargers boast one of the best defensive units in the NFL. Brandon Staley is one of the best defensive minds in the game right now and the Chargers look stacked at every level. The Chargers will play much more aggressively this season and they look much healthier than they have in years past prior to the start of week one. There has been an emphasis on the health of starters not seen in years past and that really could make all the difference. You can expect Staley to put his players in the best position to make plays. Here are three players who will not only benefit from Staley’s defensive playcalling but also have the potential to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Linebacker Kenneth MurrayEmbed from Getty Images
The way Kenneth Murray was utilized in Gus Bradley’s defense didn’t take full advantage of his skill sets. At the University of Oklahoma, Murray was known for his role as the quarterback spy. His best trait might have been his backside pursuit. He was also a capable blitzer where he had 9.5 sacks over three seasons. Murray routinely made plays behind the line of scrimmage where he had 17 tackles for loss as a junior. Under Gus Bradley, Murray was forced into coverage more often than he should have. He ended the season with just three pass deflections and five tackles for loss.
There are not many linebackers as athletic as Murray is. He ran a 4.52 40-yard-dash and put up 21 reps on the bench press. He also wowed scouts with his 38″ vertical leap and 129″ broad jump – overall Murray’s numbers were good enough for a 9.89 relative athletic score. For reference, those metrics are eerily similar to that of former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis ran a 4.53 40-yard-dash, put up 22 reps on the bench press, and had a 39″ vertical and a 119″ broad jump. Murray is an inch taller than Willis at 6’2″, but both players were listed at 241 pounds at the combine. If you want a comp of what Murray could be, Willis was a 5x All-Pro and 7x Pro Bowler in eight seasons as a pro.
In Brandon Staley’s defense, you can expect Murray to return to his college style of play. The Charger’s defensive line will free Murray up more often than he was as a rookie, which could increase his tackle numbers. He will also get more opportunities to get after the quarterback. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage will draw more tackles for loss. Murray is by no means a favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award, but he can be a deep sleeper with plenty of opportunities in the role he will play.
Safety Derwin JamesEmbed from Getty Images
As a rookie in 2018, Derwin James set the NFL aflame. He had 105 combined tackles to go with 3.5 sacks. James was a force against the run as well as the pass. He had 13 pass deflections and three interceptions that year also. The rookie made the Pro Bowl and was named First-team All-Pro in his first season. The entire defense seemed to have a different energy when he was on the field, which is why the 2019 team looked so bad. Due to a right foot stress fracture aggravated in a preseason game in 2019, James played just five games at the end of the year. Then after a terrific camp in 2020, James tore his meniscus in his right knee right before the start of the season. In all, James has played just 21 regular-season games out of a possible 48.
This year, James looks to play an integral role in the Charger’s defense. He hasn’t played all preseason, but he has been an overwhelmingly bright spot during training camp. The Chargers coaching staff has emphasized the health of James and the rest of its starters and it’s looking like a move that could pay dividends. James will be calling plays for the defense which shows the coaching staff’s trust in the young player. If his play and utilization match what we have been seeing all training camp, James is in line for a big year with plenty of turnover-worthy plays.
What makes James so valuable is the energy and leadership he brings every day. Bosa said in an interview that, “he’s an absolute freak. It’s an honor to watch him play because I truly think he’s a Hall of Famer. As long as he can stay healthy, I think he’s one of the best players in the NFL.” That is quite the compliment from one of the NFL’s very best edge rushers. While matched up against both Keenen Allen and George Kittle, James has found ways to cause turnovers. If James can not only compete, but dominate the NFL bests at their position, there’s no ceiling for what he can achieve, including the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Edge Rusher Joey BosaEmbed from Getty Images
Joey Bosa has been one of the most dominant edge rushers in the NFL since he was drafted in 2016. Last season, his 10.5 Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) score was the highest of any player by a considerable margin. The next closest player, T.J. Watt, scored a 9.4 PRP. Since Bosa entered the league, he has had 295 total pressures, which ranks 5th highest in that time frame. Ahead of him is Khalil Mack (370), Cameron Jordan (360), Brandon Graham (336), and Von Miller (303). The amazing part of that stat is that Bosa has considerably fewer pass rush attempts than those above him.
Bosa has 1943 total pass-rush snaps in that time frame. Each player ahead of him has at least 193 more pass-rush snaps and Mack has 866 more pass-rush snaps in that time frame. If you take Bosa’s total pressures and divide it by his total pass-rush snaps, he has a 15.2% pass rush pressure percentage. That means he is generating some sort of pressure 15.2% of the time he is rushing the passer. Only three players have been better. His brother, Nick Bosa, generated pressure on 15.6% of his pass-rush snaps while Cameron Wake generated pressure on 15.9% since 2016. Of all those players mentioned, keep in mind that Bosa has not had the help of defense that blitzes the passer.
Under Brandon Staley, Bosa is going to get help by defensive play-calling that will get Bosa on more one-on-one matchups off the edge. Bosa is in line for a monster year if he can stay healthy and the Defense Player of the Year award tends to go to pass rushers who are able to generate sacks. Aaron Donald has won the award in three of the last four seasons and pass rusher has won the award in eight of the last ten seasons. Bosa is not only the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL($27M AAV), he’s in the prime of his career.