Even with an unusual offseason wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic, there was still a plethora of movement throughout the NFL. Honestly, it felt like that was the most movement we’ve seen in decades, but maybe that was simply due to “who” was moved and not so much an actual large group of players.
With that movement comes a new line of replacements. With high-profile veterans now in other places, younger players will need to step up. In a recent article posted to ESPN by Football Outsider Rivers McCown, he discusses the top-25 young prospects in the NFL that he believes are right around the corner from a breakout year. Of the 25 names listed, a pair of Chargers were included: second-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and third-year running back Justin Jackson.
Let’s dig in to what McCown sees in both players and what makes him believe that they’re on the cusp of taking the next step.
Drue Tranquill - 25 years old
After being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, Chargers fans didn’t expect to see much of Tranquill on the field with a handful of bodies already solidified in the linebacker room. At the time, there was Denzel Perryman, Thomas Davis, Jatavis Brown, and Kyzir White all ahead of him, with Nick Dzubnar also still around.
Tranquill filled a role on special teams as you’d expect for a rookie but he didn’t just get his job done, he went above and beyond expectations with a pair of blocked punts, including one in their week one OT win against the Colts.
“What Tranquill offered was well spelled out in college: he’s a modern coverage linebacker who doubles as an excellent special-teamer,” says McCown. “He finished his career at Notre Dame with three picks and 11 passes defensed, as well as 184 solo tackles. Placed into this role at the NFL level, Tranquill did fairly well in coverage and excelled at special teams. He was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team as the non-returner/kicker special teams player and finished second on the Chargers in special teams tackles behind Derek Watt.”
Earlier this offseason, Tranquill told reporters on a Zoom call that when he was on the field in 2019, he was playing MIKE and making the calls for the defense. that tells us he’s likely in the running to replace Perryman sooner rather than later, especially after excelling in both pass coverage and run defense. He took his lumps as a rookie (eight missed tackles) but he only allowed two passes to go for over 15 yards - a 47-yard seam route by wide receiver Tyreek Hill (can’t blame him) and a screen by tight end Jonnu Smith that went for 35.
His 4.57 at 234 pounds at the combine and a sub-7.00 second 3-cone paints the picture of an extremely fluid mover at a position where that is becoming the the norm. As far as Perryman goes, he is a totally different style of linebacker. Tranquill is built for the future while Perryman may be stuck as a member of the old guard that’s getting left behind.
Justin Jackson - 25 years old
Jackson has unfortunately been a victim of several nagging injuries through his first two professional seasons but no one can deny his natural talent when he’s healthy and on the field. Just go back to the 2018 Sunday Night Football game against the Steelers and you’ll see multi-faceted back who can get the job done with finesse.
In 2019, he averaged 6.9 yards per carry and that’s after a touchdown run was negated by a holding call that went for over 60+ yards. The guy is just electric when given the opportunity so it’s not a surprise to see him included on this list.
“Jackson lost a large chunk of last season to a calf injury and missed his opportunity to really solidify a role in the Chargers backfield for this season. When he played, he was wildly effective, finishing with the highest DVOA of any back with more than 20 rushes at 34.9%. In 2018, he recorded a 29.9% receiving DVOA. So the full package has been on display for the last two years, but after Jackson played in just 20 of 32 possible games the Chargers had to spend a draft pick on Josh Kelley to make sure they were set post-Melvin Gordon.”
McCown brings up the quote from Shane Steichen back in May when he stated an expectation to play all three running backs during the season. Without a normal offseason, one would expect the snaps for a rookie to diminish quite a bit, so expect a healthier dose of Jackson throughout at least the first half of the season.
In just 29 carries last season, Jackson converted a first down nine times. That’s a heck of a percentage. He’s also been efficient in other areas, such as breaking tackles on a relatively unsustainable rate up to this point. According to McCown, Jackson has 27 broken tackles on just 103 total touches so far in his young career.
“We have seen other people lose faith in him, but every time he has been on the field so far, he has made explosive offense happen and it’s hard to ignore it.”