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What the defense looks like right now and the areas in need of improvement

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Los Angeles Chargers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

At this time, the LA Chargers don’t have a starter on their defense who is set to be a free agent, meaning that they could just choose to do nothing and bring back the same 11 and most of the rotational players. The same defense. The same 21st-ranked defense, by DVOA. The same defense that was 20th against the pass and 25th against the run.

I think we all know by now that they are not bringing back the same defense and we can be grateful for change. Hopefully they end up making the right changes.

As it stands, this is basically your starting Chargers defense:

DEs - Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram

DTs - Brandon Mebane, Justin Jones

OLBs - Thomas Davis, Uchenna Nwosa

ILB - Denzel Perryman

CBs - Casey Hayward, Michael Davis, Desmond King

FS - Rayshawn Jenkins

SS - Derwin James

This, of course, is not exact. I’m gonna repeat that because I’ve been writing at SB Nation for a decade: this is not an exact depth chart and it’s not the bible. It’s February 21 and there’s some debatable considerations to be made in terms of how many snaps were played last season, expected snaps if they were on the team next season, and I’ve got 12 players listed there because of the three cornerbacks and three linebackers.

Linebacker is where there may be the most moving pieces in the offseason.

Drue Tranquill played 380 snaps on defense, Kyzir White played 372 snaps, and Nwosu played 362 snaps. Perryman had 358 snaps in 14 games, while Davis was the only real regular, putting in 805 snaps.

As it stands, Davis and Perryman sit atop the list of likely cap casualties as the defense looks to get younger and more improved in 2020. If that were the case, maybe the defense has this adjustment in the middle:

OLBs - Kyzir White, Uchenna Nwosu

ILB - Drue Tranquill, being scared for other teams

With no new players brought in, maybe that would be the “starting” three, though in the modern game, defenses aren’t so reliant on three linebackers. It does seem clear that as far as the LA defense is concerned, they could be open to adding a high-profile name at the linebacker position whether that be in the draft (Isaiah Simmons) or free agency (Jamie Collins, Cory Littleton, Joe Schobert). Tranquill, Nwosu, White give the Chargers youth (average age: 24) but I don’t think anyone would turn down the opportunity to bring in one of those free agent options or Simmons.

Due to injuries, safety was an even more erratic carousel.

Derwin James missed 11 games but returned and was basically Derwin James.

The versatile Adrian Phillips missed nine games in the middle of the year and also returned for the final five, ramping up his snaps as the season concluded and mixing into the secondary with the starter at free safety, Rayshawn Jenkins. Roderic Teamer had 377 snaps on defense. Jenkins had 964. Jaylen Watkins had 299. Desmond King had 582.

At this time, a change at safety is also an open possibility though maybe not with the priority of some other positions on the defense.

The team can feel comfortable with Casey Hayward at one cornerback spot but the other two are competitions until it’s clear otherwise. Michael Davis had 659 snaps and Brandon Facyson had 327. Neither drew great reviews for the coverage abilities. It is unlikely that the answer is someone currently on the roster like King or these players who mix in and out of different spots on defense, so the draft (Jeffrey Okudah if it’s the first round) or free agency (Byron Jones, James Bradberry, Brian Poole in the slot), again a change would be welcome.

Moving to the front of the defense, Joey Bosa is the player who obviously sets the tone for the front-seven and will be the focus of contract extension talks. Melvin Ingram has been a fixture for the pass rush but hasn’t been as productive in the last two seasons and may even become a surprising cap casualty, in which case, Nwosu could move to his space.

Isaac Rochell played 273 defensive snaps on the edges and may prove to be another reason that LA does not release Ingram. Not without signing somebody else or using an early draft pick on one.

In the middle, Brandon Mebane may be the most likely cap casualty and Justin Jones has been a disappointment as a recent third round pick. Jones had 504 snaps compared to Damion Square’s 402, but Square is a free agent. Defensive tackle is a noted priority for anyone following the Chargers and while the draft has a notable player being talked about at pick six (Derrick Brown) it may also be the most loaded and flooded position in free agency. I don’t even want to list the names. There are going to be a lot of them.

And we haven’t even talked about Jerry Tillery yet.

The 28th overall pick in 2019, Tillery played 353 snaps on defense — about even in pass rushing and run stopping opportunities — and finished 113th out of 113 in PFF grades for interior defensive lineman. Compounding how unfortunate that is, Tillery turned 23 last October, relatively old for a rookie first rounder.

Tillery gives the Chargers some potential at defensive tackle, but zero assurance that they don’t need to go out and get two starters.

So what could the defense look like right now, with no other moves made, if we also left blank space for positions that need new starters or upgrades?

DE - Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, (UCHENNA NWOSU?)

DT - (SOMEONE), (SOMEONE), (JERRY TILLERY?)

OLB - (SOMEONE), (SOMEONE) (KYZIR WHITE?)

ILB - Drue Tranquill

CB - Casey Hayward, Desmond King, (SOMEONE)

FS - (SOMEONE)

SS - Derwin James

The Chargers are likely to end up starting some of the players above, like Justin Jones or Kyzir White, because they simply can only upgrade so much. They have maybe three foundation pieces — Bosa, James, Hayward — and Hayward could be beyond his prime. They could draft Derrick Brown, Isaiah Simmons, or Jeffrey Okudah and at least seem to have a fourth — so long as they don’t Tillery themselves next season. And my take on all rookies, good or bad, is that it is only one year. I got a close glimpse at what the Seattle Seahawks were dealing with in regards to first rounder L.J. Collier last season and all I can say is, at least Tillery was playing; Collier was a healthy scratch almost every week.

But if LA ends up going offensive line or quarterback in the draft, then they are left to start mending leaks in the second round and beyond and whatever they had done in free agency.

Because of that logjam at defensive tackle in free agency, I lean against drafting Brown unless you believe he has Geno Atkins or J.J. Watt potential. (I leave Aaron Donald to his own, never-strive-for class.) Simmons has the power of versatility, perhaps in a Tyrann Mathieu type way, albeit at different positions, while Okudah may be one of the best cornerback prospects in a long time and that’s a key position that is so hard to fill.

It’s not surprising that there’s a lot of work left to do on the defense. It is surprising that they aren’t set to lose many players on defense without making the cuts themselves.