With two weeks of training camp, some inter-squad scrimmages with the Rams and its first preseason game at the StubHub Center under their belt, the Chargers have three main questions about their defense as the season opener against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 11 quickly approaches.
In this issue we will focus on the defensive tackle, linebacker and defensive back positions — three areas of concern where injuries to key players took its toll last season as the team lost seven out of its last nine games and finished the season on a five-game losing streak.
Heading into the NFL draft, speculation had General Manager Tom Telesco using his early picks on upgrading the safety and cornerback positions. However, Telesco didn’t address the defense until day three of the draft when he selected safety Rayshawn Jenkins, cornerback/safety Desmond King and defensive tackle Issac Rochell in the fourth, fifth and seventh round, respectfully.
On paper, switching to a 4-3 defense could make the Chargers’ defensive front one of the best in the league. The key to success will be the play of NT Brandon Mebane and DT Corey Liuget — both of whom are looking to put the 2016 season behind them.
Returning from a season-ending biceps injury, Mebane’s leadership both on and off the field had a positive impact on his teammates until his injury in week 10. Having played under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for a number of years with the Seahawks, Mebane’s experience with Bradley’s scheme will pay dividends for the defense if he can stay healthy. Entering his 11th season Mebane has played a complete 16-game schedule just five times — the last being in 2013.
As for Liuget, this could be a make or break season for the former first-round pick as he enters year number seven in the NFL. After signing a big money deal prior to the 2015 season, his production hasn’t lived up to the contract — playing in 11 games in 2015 he finished the season with 35 total tackles and three sacks. Last season he produced 36 total tackles and zero sacks in 16 games.
With veterans Ryan Carrethers, Tenny Pelepoi, Caraun Reid, and Damien Square each getting valuable playing time the last couple of years, establishing a steady rotation along the interior line will keep the 32-year-old Mebane and Liuget fresh throughout the season.
In Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman the Chargers possess two young thumpers to keep an eye on over the next few years. Despite missing the better part of five games do to a knee injury last season, Brown finished a spectacular rookie campaign with 79 tackles (2nd on team), 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Selected to the NFL’s All-Rookie Team, Brown was so impressive he made veteran Manti Te’o expendable.
Entering his third season, Perryman’s raw aggressiveness, instincts and physical play is exactly what the team needs at middle linebacker. A second-round pick out of the University of Miami, Perryman is a punishing tackler and plays middle linebacker with reckless abandon. The only negative is the injuries — at 5-11, 240 pounds, biceps, shoulder, and hamstring injuries have prevented him from completing a full 16-game schedule during his first two years in the league.
Kyle Emmanuel will have stiff competition for the strong side linebacker position by second-year man Joshua Perry. Veterans Korey Toomer and Nick Dzubnar provide solid depth as rookies Nigel Harris, Mike Moore and James Onwushu battle to earn a spot on the team.
Louie Benjamin of Pro Football Focus (PFF) recently ranked the Chargers’ front seven No. 11 among the 32 NFL teams. “Former first round pick Corey Liuget has had an up-and-down career, but last year posted the worst grade of his career since his rookie year at 49.3,” Benjamin said. “If Liuget can improve from last year, this group could easily be on the rise.
“The Chargers found a diamond in the rough in 2016 fifth round pick Jatavis Brown, who finished as the 27th highest graded linebacker. They also have an outstanding pair of edge-rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who finished with the fifth and sixth highest graded players at their position last year (Bosa’s first), respectively.”
If Benjamin’s ranking comes to fruition it will be a vast improvement over last year where, according to PFF, the defense gave up a total of 5,554 total yards and finishing 29th in the league.
The Chargers have two of the top starting cornerback tandems in the league with Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward. The big question is Verrett — a Pro Bowl selection and Chargers Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, injuries has limited him to just 22 starts as he enters his fourth season in the NFL. Despite injury concerns, the Chargers proved their confidence in Verrett by picking up his fifth-year option in May (ESPN’s Eric D. Williams).
Hayward had a major impact during his first year with the team as he led the NFL with a career-high seven interceptions and 20 passes defensed (tied for third). Entering his sixth season, the former Green Bay Packer has 16 career interceptions and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl as a Charger after signing a three-year contract last season.
The safety position was solidified by the re-signing of strong safety Jahleel Addae. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Addae has stablished himself as the ‘enforcer’ in the secondary through his big hits against the run and pass. Like Perryman, Addae’s physical play has taken its toll as he’s missed a number of games due to concussion (2014) and a broken collar bone (2016).
Former Carolina Panther Tre Boston signed a free agent contract and will compete with Dwight Lowery for the starting free safety spot where the void left by the departure of All-Pro safety Eric Weddle was sorely missed last season.
In Adrian Phillips, Dexter McCoil, Travon Reed, Michael Davis, Brandon Stewart, Randall Evans and rookies Jenkins and King, the secondary has a good mixture of youth and talent battling to earn a roster spot.
The Endzone: In an article last month USA Today’s Nate Turner wrote the Chargers defensive line has supplanted the Houston Texans defensive line as the best in the NFL. Said Turner: “Defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa finished with 10 ½ sacks in just 12 games. He and newly minted Melvin Ingram, who’s converting from linebacker, could give J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney serious competition as the league’s top end tandem. Ex-Seahawk Brandon Mebane’s reunion with new DC Gus Bradley means he should be more comfortable in the middle. And if a lighter, healthier Corey Liuget rebounds in a scheme players typically love, this could be a special quartet.