Tom Telesco Takes Blame For Poor Chargers Defense
Late Thursday morning, Los Angeles Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco had his season-ending press conference. As he always does, he mostly kept things close to the chest but he painted a rather bleak picture about the way the defensive unit performed this season in Brandon Staley’s first season. He took ownership for the poor defensive showing that did not live up to the expectations that he (along with all of us) had for that side of the ball. The Chargers have a large number of resources to devote to amending that issue, and as Telesco put it: “updating our personnel”.
As you may recall, there was a similar thought process expressed by Telesco about the offensive line after the 2020 season. What came after that was a complete overhaul of the unit. After adding Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler, and Oday Aboushi (who should be re-signed this year), Rashawn Slater, and Brenden Jaimes. Similar to Telesco, Staley said that fixing the defense (and specifically the defensive line) would be at the forefront this time around and I expect them to put their money where their mouths are, just as they did last year with the offensive line.
Now that they’ve acknowledged the problem, what does that actually mean? Let’s dive into a few paths forward.
Add Competition To The Defensive Line Room
The state of the Chargers defensive line room is as follows: former first-round pick Jerry Tillery is under contract, along with former undrafted free agents Breiden Fehoko and Joe Gaziano. Linval Joseph, Justin Jones, and Christian Covington are all slated to hit free agency. I would be surprised if Joseph returned at his age, and with the way he fell off during the back half of the season. Covington was fine as a post-June first pickup but did not do enough to earn another contract. I think they’ll keep Jones around but I wouldn’t be surprised if he sought another contract elsewhere.
Even if they bring back Jones, they should still be looking to bring in at least two quality players via free agency to push for starting spots. Sebastian Joseph-Day and Akiem Hicks have been frequently connected to the team because of their time with Staley, but they likely can’t afford to bring in both of them. Austin Johnson, B.J. Hill, D.J. Jones, and William Gholston are other options that I would look into.
After ideally signing two quality veterans, the team should look to draft another body to compete for a rotation spot – ideally not in the first round. Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt, Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis, or Ohio State’s Haskell Garrett could be day two options there. The Chargers did not do a good enough job in adding quality depth behind their starting defensive line last year and it showed. They cannot make the same mistake this year and as of now, that is the highest priority of the offseason.
Upgrade The Playmaking Ability In the Secondary
Obviously, this is easier said than done, but the Chargers need to do a much better job at creating more opportunities for Justin Herbert and the offense. The Chargers were bottom three in the league in third-down defense and the majority of the struggle there is due to injuries and a lack of quality depth in the secondary behind Derwin James. According to Daniel Popper of The Athletic, the team cycled through 60 different combinations in the secondary. James essentially missed three games, Asante Samuel Jr. missed six, Chris Harris Jr. missed three, Michael Davis missed three, free-agent acquisition Ryan Smith only played in two games due to two separate injuries, Nasir Adderley missed two games, Alohi Gilman missed six games, and Mark Webb really only appeared in three games before having his own season-ending injury.
All these injuries forced players like Tevaughn Campbell, Kemon Hall, Trey Marshall, and Davontae Harris into key roles throughout the season which of course resulted in the Chargers’ poor pass defense. This highlights a problem the Chargers have had under Telesco throughout his tenure where he supplements the depth behind his starting players (see: Russell Okung/Trenton Scott).
The Chargers should have a new starter at the nickel next year because of Harris’ pending free agency and decreased ability. They could solve that problem through free agency with somebody like Bryce Callahan who will be linked to the team because of his familiarity with the coaching staff and scheme from his days with the Broncos and Bears. Kyle Fuller and Darious Williams also check the coaching connection box, although they are both more outside corners than slot corners. K’Waun Williams and Levi Wallace will be the best nickel defenders on the market this season but there’s obviously no guarantee that they actually hit the market.
The Chargers need to add at least two quality corners to go along with Davis and Samuel and supplement the depth behind them. Florida’s Kaiir Elam, Washington’s Trent McDuffie, Georgia’s Derion Kendrick, and Cincinnati’s Coby Bryant could be options in the first or second round. (The first two have slot flexibility.)
Find Reliable Supporting Edge Rushers
Finally comes the pass rush. Telesco and Staley each raved about pending free agent Uchenna Nwosu in their end-of-season press conferences, and he deserves it. He has the perfect skill set for this defense and played the best ball of his career down the final stretches of the season. I’d be pretty surprised if they actually let him walk unless some other team offered him an absurd amount of money that he simply could not say no to.
That being said, the Chargers need to find/develop quality edge rushers to play behind Nwosu and star Joey Bosa. Kyler Fackrell had some good moments but should hardly be the team’s primary backup rusher, and Chris Rumph still seems a ways away from being a consistent playmaker. The team’s pass rush ability really fell off a cliff when Bosa missed games or was off the field this year and he absolutely needs some help.
With the amount of cap space the team has, adding another veteran isn’t out of the question but feels unlikely. Perhaps they’d be able to convince a Von Miller or Jadeveon Clowney type to agree to a cheap, one-year deal but the alternative of drafting an edge rusher early-ish feels like the more likely route. Michigan’s David Ojabo, Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson, Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders, and USC’s Drake Jackson could be early options for the Chargers through the draft.
I’m sure this really seems like a lot to most people, but the Chargers need to make sure that they maximize Herbert’s rookie contract and the defense was a major problem in hindering his second season. And the Chargers only have 33 players on the roster so this defense is going to look VERY different next season.