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Chargers 2021 Pre-Free Agency Overview: Defensive Line

The Bolts are set to return most of their defensive group in 2021, but they’re expected to let go of one of their biggest names.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Monday of the week where the NFL’s free agency signing period begins, which means it’s technically the start of free agency.

*wink *wink

Well, it’s technically the start of the “legal tampering” window, but what is actually “legal” anymore these days, ya know?

At any rate, the news has been coming in pretty steady today and it’s been a lot of nothing regarding the Bolts, besides the news that the team isn’t going to tender Isaac Rochell.

Speaking of defensive lineman, that’s the position we’re diving into today for our positional overviews. It’s one of the larger groups on the team and there’s four players scheduled to become free agents.

Let’s get into it.

On Roster: DE Joey Bosa, DT Linval Joseph, DT Justin Jones, DT Jerry Tillery, DT Breiden Fehoko, DE Jessie Lemonier, DT Cortez Broughton, DT T.J. Smith

It was the same thing, different year in 2020 for Bosa as he was far-and-away the best defensive player on the field for the Chargers this past season. Bosa continues to be just as effective against the run as he is rushing the passer, consistently earning one of the highest double-team and pass-rush win rates at his position.

The Big Bear fought through numerous injuries in 2020. At one point, he told the media he was dealing with three separate injuries ahead of their matchup with the Saints in Week 5. Overall, Bosa started 10 games, missing four, and played in a situational role in two others. He finished with 39 total tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 7.5 sacks. His best game of the season came against the Bills in Week 11 where he finished with six tackles-for-loss and three sacks.

Joseph joined the Chargers in 2020 after spending the previous six seasons with in Minnesota. He was a rock-steady presence in middle, starting all 16 games for a defense that was leveled with injuries early and often last season. Joseph added some needed mass and run-stopping ability in the middle while playing mentor to the group’s younger players like Justin Jones and Jerry Tillery.

Overall, the veteran’s biggest addition to the defense was his high-energy and motor. While he finished with zero sacks and just three tackles-for-loss, Joseph would consistently run the width of the field to have the shot at bringing down ball-carriers. That’s the type of effort you just can’t teach.

Jones started 12 games this past season, tying his career-high from 2019. He also recorded his first career sack against the Falcons in Week 13. Jones has steadily improved over his first three seasons, which is exactly what you want from a former third-round pick. His five-tackles-for-loss were also tied with Uchenna Nwosu for second most on the team. He’ll battle to keep a starting position in 2021.

In his second season after being selected in the first round of the 2019 draft, Tillery started the year on a high note, recording the Chargers’ first sack of the 2020 season. Due to injuries to both Bosa and Ingram, Tillery started seeing a lot of time out on the edge as an end where he played respectably while having the occasional growing pain. In 11 starts, he recorded three tackles-for-loss and three sacks, both being career-highs. If there’s any areas where Tillery can improve upon heading into year three, it’d be to sure up his mental awareness when rushing the passer to avoid penalties and to solidify his tackling. He missed nine tackles in 2020, earning him a 23.1 percent missed-tackle rate.

When Broughton was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 draft, I thought it was a high-value pick with some upside as Broughton was coming off a First-Team All-AAC season. Unfortunately, a bout with mononucleosis kept him from seeing the field for more than two games and stunted the level of progression he could’ve made in his first professional season. This past season, Broughton saw time in nine games and recorded just four tackles and a single pass deflection at the line. His stat lines have been far from what he posted as a senior at Cincinnati (18.5 TFLS, 7.5 sacks) but we know the talent is there. His aggressive tendencies could be useful in Staley’s style of defense, but time will tell if he’s able to compete in the crowded position group.

Fehoko wasted no time becoming a fan favorite during his time in the spotlight during this year’s season of HBO’s Hard Knocks. He has an infectious energy about him and it’s hard not to root for the former undrafted free agent out of LSU. Fehoko saw time with the active roster in two games but recorded zero stats. If he can figure out a consistent pass-rush plan to combine with his elite physical traits, he could work himself into a rotation spot along the line.

Lemonier and Smith round out the trio of 2020 UDFAs that are still on the roster heading into this offseason. While Smith spent the entirety of the year on the practice squad, Lemonier saw time on the active roster in two separate games, including against the Saints in Week 5. He totaled just two tackles and two quarterback hits. Lemonier was a perfect fit to work in at LEO with Nwosu but with the switch in defensive systems, he’ll likely see more work as a standup linebacker on the edge.

Free Agent(s): DE Melvin Ingram, DE Isaac Rochell, DT Damion Square, DE Joe Gaziano

Melvin Ingram took part in a holdout during the early parts of training camp this past season when his current contract paid him zero dollars in guaranteed money in 2020. After sitting out of practices for roughly a week, Ingram returned after a re-structured deal that guaranteed him his entire $14 million salary in his final year with the Chargers.

Ingram proceeded to play in just seven games, recording 10 total tackles, zero tackle-for-loss, and zero sacks.

Ingram had already been in decline prior to last season, but this performance effectively sealed his fate in Los Angeles. I’d be incredibly surprised to see him return to the Bolts and I fully expect him to land elsewhere, particularly with the Raiders and former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

The 32-year old Square has played just about every position along the defensive line at one time or another during his Chargers career. Even as an undersized defensive tackle, he’s been able to hold his own at nose, three-technique, and even out on the edge in place of Bosa when needed. His best season came in 2018 when he started 11 total games, finishing with a career-high 31 tackles and three sacks to go with three tackles-for-loss. Like some of the other veterans on this team, I think the new regime means a new start elsewhere for Square.

Gaziano was one of the more promising UDFAs signed by the Chargers after he left Northwestern as the program’s all-time leader in sacks with 30. At 6’4 and 285 pounds, he was a but of a ‘tweener who won with power and smarts. With the Chargers, he saw time in just two games with the active roster, recording a lone tackle and a single quarterback hit. I don’t think it’s assured that Gaziano’s time with the Bolts are done, but it’s up to Staley to find the value in him if Chargers fans want to see him back in 2021.

(It was reported earlier this morning that the Chargers would not be tendering Rochell. Since this is going out after the fact, here’s my excerpt on him from that report.)

Rochell, the Bolts’ seventh-round pick back in 2017, started a career-high six games in 2020 due to a number of injuries to both Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. He ended the year with 29 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and 2.5 sacks. His best season with the Chargers came in 2018 when he started three games, playing in all 16, and recorded a career-high five sacks and six tackles-for-loss.

The former Golden Domer has been a consistent presence for the Chargers. He hasn’t missed a single game over the past three seasons and has been rock-steady whenever he’s been needed for spot duty. Chargers fans would have liked Rochell to be more of a difference-maker in his limited playing snaps, but at the same time, former seventh-round picks usually don’t stick around this long.