In just a few short hours, the Los Angeles Chargers will take the field in Glendale, Arizona against Sam Bradford, Chandler Jones and the Arizona Cardinals and, like you, I’m all but counting down the seconds. In other words, it took six long months, but preseason football has finally arrived!
When the Bolts do finally take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday evening, it will represent both the start of game action and the official beginning of a variety of position battles on offense, defense and special teams. Some of them, like free safety and weak side linebacker, are taking place atop the depth chart; while others, such as wide receiver and cornerback are taking place closer to the bottom of the team’s hierarchy.
Like I said, there are several position battles to keep track of as you watch the first game of the preseason, which is why I thought I’d give everyone list of what I’ll be watching this weekend. Let’s get started…
The Players: Cardale Jones and Geno Smith
First and foremost, let us all rejoice in the splendor of no longer having to talk about Kellen Clemens as the Chargers backup quarterback. I’ve waited for this moment for what feels like a decade and, I won’t lie…it’s everything I thought it could be and more.
I’ll keep this simple – I just want one of these two signal callers to prove he can make good decisions and protect the football. That’s it. I don’t care whether or not either of these guys is capable of taking the mantle from Rivers in a year or two (hint: they aren’t); I just want to find the guy best suited to winning a game or two in the unlikely event of a Phiip Rivers injury. Until I see a dramatic improvement in nearly every aspect of Cardale’s game, my money is firmly on Geno Smith to win this job.
6th Wide Receiver
The Player: Artavis Scott
If Artavis Scott is going to graduate from training camp MVP to earning a spot on the 53-man roster, now is the time. The Chargers figure to carry six wide receivers, he’s having a second consecutive strong training camp, and rookie wide receiver Dylan Cantrell is nursing a bone bruise in his right knee. In other words, Cantrell’s injury opened a door for Artavis to separate himself in the hunt for a roster spot and that door may not remain open for very long.
But, before Scott can earn a roster spot, he has to force his way onto the field, which is something he wasn’t able to do last preseason. If and when he does, I think it will be important for him to show he’s a two-way player capable of adding value as a receiver and as a return specialist. With that in mind, I’d like to get an extended look at Scott returning kicks…and they might want to try targeting the training camp darling with more than two passes this preseason.
Where In The World is Derwin James?
The Chargers plans for Derwin James might be the most compelling storyline to come out of this training camp. The assumption early on was that he’d replace Tre Boston at free safety and, while I’m sure he’ll see some time in centerfield, it doesn’t appear as though that will be his primary position. The question, then, becomes: where will Derwin James play?
Given his skill set, I fully expect James to play as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, as often as possible. We know he won’t start this game at either safety position, and my guess is he’ll see a lot of time at dime linebacker and strong safety. Knowing the team plans to evaluate Desmond King at free safety, it would not surprise me in the least to see Derwin log some snaps at slot cornerin certain situations. James is, after all, a chess piece, and I expect the coaching staff to use him accordingly.
Jatavis Brown vs Kyzir White
The competition between Jatavis Brown and Kyzir White for the starting job at weak side linebacker job is my pick for the most intriguing position battle in camp. On the one hand, you have Brown’s twitchy and explosive athleticism, and on the other you have White’s high football IQ and enforcer’s mentality – you really can’t lose for going in either direction.
When Jatavis is on the field, I’ll be watching to see how quickly he’s processing information, whether or not he second-guesses his reads, and how he’s finishing when he has a chance to make plays. When Kyzir is on the field, I’ll be curious to see whether or not the speed with which he’s played in practice translates to game action, how he matches up with backs and tight ends in coverage, and how his teammates respond to the big hits he’s sure to make.
The Players: Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, Adrian Phillips, Jaylen Watkins
The Chargers have been rotating several players at both safety positions in practice and, not surprisingly, all of those moving parts have led to some breakdowns in the back end of the defense. With Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, Adrian Phillips and Jaylen Watkins all likely to see time at one or both safety spots throughout the game, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect more breakdowns in Arizona.
First and foremost, I’d really like to discover that the talk of Jahleel Addae at free safety is just that – talk – and the team will allow him to focus on building on the year he had at strong safety in 2017. Second, I’m curious to see how the secondary communicates with so many guys rotating through the safety positions. An finally, I’d like to see Rayshawn Jenkins grab the free safety job by the throat so Desmond King can focus on his role as the slot corner.
Special Teams/The UDFA’s
The Players: Ben Johnson, D’Juan Hines, Tony Brown
In my estimation, Ben Johnson, D’Juan Hines and Tony Brown are three of the four most likely members of this year’s undrafted free agent class to make the final 53-man roster (Steven Richardson being the fourth) and, if they’re going to make good on that assessment, it will have as much to do with their special teams contributions as the value they provide on offense or defense. It’s no coincidence that Johnson and Brown, in particular, were core contributors on special teams in college and have the potential to make an immediate impact in the third phase of the game.
I’ll keep this simple – based on their college pedigrees and early feedback from their coaches, I fully expect all three of these players to show up repeatedly covering kicks and punts in Arizona. Should they live up to those expectations, all three of them should begin to climb the depth charts at their respective positions. While Brown probably faces the most difficult road to a roster spot of the three considering the talent the Chargers have in the secondary, he might also be the most skilled and the most valuable special teams player of the group – a fact I don’t think will be lost on Anthony Lynn, who happened to earn his living on special teams.
Well, that’s it – that’s what I’ll be watching during the Chargers first preseason game. In terms of position battles, I’ll be watching for someone to separate themselves at backup quarterback, wide receiver, safety and weak side linebacker, while also monitoring the communication in the secondary and the special teams contributions of some of the team’s more promising undrafted free agents.