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Chargers Improve Tackling, Pass Rush, and Ability To Defend Tight Ends in 2018 NFL Draft

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Kickoff-Alabama vs Florida State John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers entered the 2018 NFL Draft in with the stated goal of upgrading their defense. More specifically, they wanted to improve the run defense and give defensive coordinator Gus Bradley more options in matching up with opposing tight ends. And, even if they didn’t want to say it out loud, they had to be focused on scaling back the roles of Kyle Emanuel, Hayes Pullard, and Adrian Phillips.

In adding Derwin James, Uchenna Nwosu, Justin Jones and Kyzir White, the Chargers made a concerted effort to upgrade the first two levels of their defense. They improved the tackling, gave themselves more attractive options in defending opposing tight ends, found an ascending option at OTTO capable of rushing the passer and providing value in coverage, and added two of the best blitzers in the draft class. And, in the process, they all but eliminated the need to rely on Emmanuel, Pullard, and Phillips.

Mission accomplished.

Let’s take a quick look at each of the Chargers first four picks, examining how they graded out, their strengths and weaknesses as players, and how they fit in this defense.

Derwin James

Grade: 90

Strengths: What makes Derwin James is his unique combination of size and speed (6’2”, 215, 4.47 40-yard dash), which enables him to excel at nearly everything he does on the football field. He possesses the length and strength to smother opposing tight ends in press coverage, the speed and range to both cover ground as a deep safety and roam sideline-to-sideline as a nickel linebacker, and the demeanor to be an enforcer in the middle of the field. He also happens to be one of the best tacklers and blitzers in this draft class.

Weaknesses: In my opinion, the biggest knock on Derwin is underdeveloped instincts attributed to a lack of experience (26 starts in college). These underdeveloped instincts can lead to slow reads and delayed reactions. The slow reactions most commonly show up when he gets caught watching routes develop as a deep safety, but they also materialize when he gets sucked out of position by window dressing (misdirection, play-action, pump fakes, etc). Other than that, his pursuit angles could use some improvement.

Fit: Everywhere. Derwin James fits everywhere. He possesses the speed and range to be an outstanding deep safety, the size and demeanor to play box safety/nickel linebacker, the man coverage chops to press and suffocate opposing tight ends and receivers, and the explosiveness to rush the passer as either a safety or a linebacker. He will no doubt see snaps at free safety, strong safety, and nickel linebacker. To be honest, he could probably handle duty at boundary corner if needed. He is a literal Swiss Army knife and the rare player who does pretty much everything well. And here’s the best part: as long as Derwin James is playing nickel linebacker, Adrian Phillips is more than likely on the bench.

Uchenna Nwosu

Grade: 81

Strengths: Uchenna Nwosu is an ascending edge player who figures to take over at the OTTO linebacker position for Gus Bradley. As a pass rusher, Nwosu plays with very good balance, is able to dip underneath offensive tackles, flashes an effective spin move, and knows how and when to get his hands into passing lanes to deflect passes. He’s also very comfortable and effective in zone coverage, showing a feel for soft spots in the zone, anticipating throws and squeezing routes.

Weaknesses: While Uchenna flashes the ability to set a physical edge, he still loses too many one-on-one matchups to tight ends and tackles. He will also guess and gamble to the inside at times, vacating the edge and hanging his teammates out to dry. I think he’s a work in progress as a pass rusher, as he generally wins with effort as opposed to technique, hasn’t yet unlocked his hands, and lacks an arsenal of counters. Nwosu will also have to show marked improvement in his tackling and prove he can be an asset in man coverage if he wants to stay on the field for all three downs.

Fit: The long-term fit, or vision, for Uchenna Nwosu, is as a potential three-down OTTO in Gus Bradley’s defense. The hope is that they’ve found an athlete capable of learning how to set the edge, affect the quarterback and provide added value in coverage. You might also see Nwosu dabble at defensive end on obvious passing downs, kicking Joey Bosa inside in Nascar packages. I suspect Uchenna will split time with Kyle Emanuel early in the year, with Emanuel playing primarily on first down and the rookie predominantly playing on second and third down while he learns to set the edge. In other words, by drafting the former Trojan the Chargers have established a clear path to reducing Kyle Emanuel’s snaps at OTTO and replaced the recently departed Chris McCain.

Justin Jones

Grade: 62

Strengths: Justin Jones possesses a compact, powerful build with a low center of gravity. He exhibits good play strength and a very good motor. While Justin doesn’t blast people with his hands, they are very active and effective, constantly punching, slapping and swatting throughout the rep. He also flashes the quickness to split double teams and features a solid arm/over move.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, there isn’t much about Justin Jones’ game that stands out. Though he’s 6’3”, 310 pounds, he looks small on tape and is something of a tweener. He plays the game of a space-eater despite having the frame of a penetrating 3-technique. Jones isn’t much of an athlete, plays with high pad level, doesn’t create consistent penetration and is slow to locate and react to ball carriers. He also doesn’t strike me as someone who is likely to provide much in the way of a pass rush and isn’t terribly effective as a pocket pusher, either.

Fit: I’ve seen some people suggest Justin Jones is the sort of penetrating 3-technique the Chargers favor, but I don’t see it. While he will no doubt see time at both one-and-three techniques during the first four games, I suspect the coaching staff hopes to mold him into Brandon Mebane’s long-term replacement at one technique. The team had a need at defensive tackle and I understand the vision for Jones, I just don’t care for the player or see a natural fit in the defensive scheme. Hopefully, Justin will prove me wrong with time and proper coaching.

Kyzir White

Grade: 81

Strengths: At 6’2”, 218, Kyzir White possesses the instincts, frame, and demeanor to grow into a three-down linebacker role. While his greatest asset is his ability to process, White is also a devastating blitzer, a punishing, and reliable tackler, and offers the ability to smother opposing tight ends in press coverage. He advanced route recognition should also allow him to be an asset in zone coverage.

Weaknesses: Kyzir is an average athlete with limited lateral quickness and some hip tightness, which generally shows up in man coverage and when he plays deep safety. He isn’t someone you want to match up with slot receivers and the team will no doubt look limit him to matchups with tight ends in man coverage. Last but not least, he would probably benefit from adding a little weight and getting stronger.

Fit: There is no doubt in my mind that Kyzir White was drafted to play a three-down WILL linebacker role in Gus Bradley’s defense. I’m sure they valued his instincts, which was their biggest gripe with 2016 fifth round pick Jatavis Brown last season, as well as his physical, intense demeanor. They’ll let him diagnose and attack the line of scrimmage against the run, ask him to erase opposing tight ends in coverage, and cut him loose as a blitzer from the slot on third down. He’s the perfect fit for this role and there is the added benefit of his presence on the field pushing Denzel Perryman back to the MIKE linebacker position, which means Hayes Pullard goes back to the bench.

There is no shortage of reasons to love what the Chargers added to their defense in the 2018 NFL Draft. Tom Telesco, Anthony Lynn and the rest of the front office added a pair of legitimate enforcers, improved the tackling at the second level, found more ways to affect opposing quarterbacks and cover opposing tight ends, and added some depth to the defensive line rotation.

More importantly, they added three potential three-down difference makers and laid the foundation for phasing Kyle Emanuel, Hayes Pullard, and Adrian Phillips out of the defense. In other words, they saw the big picture, identified their shortcomings, and did a fantastic job of addressing nearly all of them. You can’t ask for much more than that.

That’s what I think; tell me what you think in the comment section below…