Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to my very first prediction of the Chargers’ initial 53-man roster.
This is a long one, so I’m going to try and keep this intro short.
With the team changing defensive philosophies, I struggled to decide just how many players to keep in the front seven. Instead of being split into defensive tackles and ends, it’s now categorized by defensive lineman and edge players.
This is also the first year where I don’t think an undrafted player will make the first 53. Unless it’s Alex Kessman, the kicker from Pitt, I don’t think any of the other UDFAs really pop at a position that is also still of need. No one offers anything unique and so I didn’t want to force a player onto the list for the sake of doing it. I hope I’m proven wrong but it’s hard to imagine this early in the process.
With that being said, let’s go ahead and jump right in.
(UPDATE: I began writing this prior to the Christian Covington signing and had already picked the defensive lineman. I switched Cortez Broughton out for Covington in that position group.)
Quarterbacks (3): Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
No surprises here.
Herbert will start with Daniel likely to be the backup. I predict the team will keep Easton Stick on the roster in order to save him from being poached by another team. The front office has always liked his intangibles on and off the field and with an entire offseason effectively stolen from him in 2020, they still want to give him the chance at developing in their system. As a depth quarterback, there’s still plenty to like about Stick’s makeup.
Running Backs (4): Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Larry Rountree, Gabe Nabers
Before this year’s draft, I mentioned on several occasions that I could foresee Staley selecting a running back even though the team had just spent a fourth-round pick on Joshua Kelley one year prior. Kelley seemed very much like a Lynn prospect and I believe that Staley wanted to to bring in “his guy” into the room, which ended up being Rountree.
Austin Ekeler has the MOVES pic.twitter.com/zp79N5wCUI— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) September 27, 2020
Outside of his first two games in the NFL, Kelley was fairly inefficient the rest of 2020. After recording 173 total yards of offensive and one rushing score against the Bengals and Chiefs, Kelley managed just 329 yards (3.03 YPC) and another rushing touchdown over his next 11 games played.
I don’t see the team keeping four running backs and a fullback, so if Nabers does make the cut in the team’s new offense, I believe Kelley is the odd man out to begin the season.
Wide Receivers (6): Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Josh Palmer, Tyron Johnson, Jalen Guyton, K.J. Hill
The Chargers kept six wide receivers on their initial roster to begin the 2020 season and I predict them to do it again this year.
With Allen and Williams locked in, there would be four spots up for grabs to be had between the likes of Palmer, Guyton, T-Billy, Hill, and Joe Reed. After the small breakouts by both Guyton and Johnson, along with Hill seeing an increase in opportunities to end last season, I think it’s safe to say that Reed would be the odd-man out this year.
Reed was drafted in the fifth-round a year ago in hopes he would solve the Bolts’ problems at kick returner. After failing to move the needle all that much, he ended up losing the job to Nasir Adderley who rattled off multiple returns of 50+ yards during the team’s four-game win-streak to end the season. As a raw player at the position, Reed spent all of last season working on his route-running and fundamentals of the position. Unless he made major progress in that area, I don’t see how he adds value to the team over anyone listed above.
Tight Ends (4): Jared Cook, Donald Parham, Stephen Anderson, Tre’ McKitty
After losing both Hunter Henry and Virgil Green this offseason, the Chargers did a respectable job of not letting the position become a gaping hole with the signing of Cook and selection of McKitty in last week’s draft.
Cook is still very much a vertical threat and he’s almost a better fit for Justin Herbert than Henry was when it comes to the vertical nature that the offense is expected to have. Parham also fits snuggly in, as well. His 6’8 frame was utilized in the red zone to the tune of three touchdowns on 10 total catches in 2020. Two of those three scores were balls that he hauled in despite a defender in proper position so I’m very confident the team will continue to utilize him in that manner.
Anderson was a YAC threat in his limited touches and I believe those small sparks of life he showed earned him another contract with the Chargers. He can fill multiple roles.
Lastly, McKitty was drafted due to this blocking ability, according to Tom Telesco. Following day two of the draft, TT mentioned that he was someone they felt was the last “pro-ready” blocker at the position left on the board so they felt he was worth the pick.
Offensive Linemen (9): Rashawn Slater, Matt Feiler, Corey Linsley, Oday Aboushi, Bryan Bulaga, Trey Pipkins, Brenden Jaimes, Scott Quessenberry, Tyree St. Louis
Right now, four of the five starting spots up front can be penciled in. The lone spot that I can see some competition popping up during camp is the right guard spot. Aboushi is the man there currently but don’t sleep on rookie Brenden Jamies, who started 41-straight games for Nebraska. If Aboushi ends up winning the job outright, Jamies will then compete for the swing tackle job with Pipkins.
Quessenberry is the immediate backup to Linsley and has the versatility for spot duty at both guard spots. St. Louis is emergency depth at guard, as well.
Defensive Lineman (5): Linval Joseph, Justin Jones, Jerry Tillery, Christian Covington, Breiden Fehoko
Should the Charger utilize the similar 3-4 looks the Rams used, expect to see Joseph, Tillery, and Jones on the field at the same time quite often. Specifically, you should see them align at a nose, 4i, and a 4i, respectively, with an edge player outside both Tillery and Jones. The actual front will vary on a per-snap basis, but these players in this personnel grouping should see plenty of time together.
Behind the top three are the newly-signed Covington and Fehoko. Broughton is depth at all three interior positions while Fehoko is more of a true nose like Joseph. Watch out for UDFA Forrest Merrill here, but I’d give the nod to Fehoko at this early junction.
Edge Rushers (5): Joey Bosa, Uchenna Nwosu, Kyler Fackrell, Chris Rumph II (R), Emeke Egbule
One of the weakest positions on the roster heading into the 2021 season. Bosa and Nwosu figure to be the team’s starters but there’s still questions to be had about how this defense will line up most of the time this year. Nwosu is your picture-perfect 3-4 outside linebacker. Bosa is a picture-perfect 4-3 defensive end. Staley already stated that Bosa is an “EDGE” player, meaning he will not be anywhere closer to the center than a five-technique. If you want to see how the defense may lineup this year, go back and watch the first 2016 matchup against the Raiders when Bosa made his debut. John Pagano ran a 3-4 with some 4-3 concepts thrown in which is going to be somewhat close to how I think Staley will design this defense.
Uchenna Nwosu bull rushes Terron Armstead into Drew Brees' lap for the sack pic.twitter.com/qmw34zWKEj— PFF (@PFF) October 13, 2020
The addition of Fackrell was huge from a depth standpoint. He played in Green Bay’s five-man front and had a huge year in 2018 when Staley was still coaching for the Bears. He has the chance to be a big-time pickup for the Bolts.
Rumph will obviously make the roster as the team’s fourth-round pick this year and he’ll get the chance to develop under Staley’s tutelage and Bosa’s guidance. He’ll likely see minimal time in 2021 as a situation pass-rusher.
I expect Egbule to make a semi-transition to edge after playing most of his season snaps there against the Saints in Week 5. Egbule only saw 35 plays on defense and 25 came against New Orleans where he recorded three stops and a hit on the QB. Allowing him to play both on and off-ball linebacker would help depth at both positions.
Linebackers (4): Kenneth Murray Jr., Drue Tranquill, Kyzir White, Nick Niemann (R)
If there’s one theme that you can blatantly see in this linebacker group, it’s that the Chargers built one of the fastest groups in the NFL. Niemann is actually the fastest of the group, besting Murray’s 4.52 with a 4.51 at Iowa’s Pro Day. Behind them is Tranquill’s 4.58 and Ogbongbemiga’s 4.66. White is the slowest of the group at 4.69.
Your projected starters will Murray and Tranquill. They both started Week 1 last year and should’ve taken the league on together had it not been for the freak ankle injury to Tranquill. They get another shot in 2021.
White will play in base situations where the team utilizes 4-3 looks. Traditional 3-4 fronts operate with two middle linebackers and I don’t see any reason he’d start over Murray or Tranquill in those situations.
Niemann has too much athletic upside not to be kept on the team as fans should hope he turns into an even better Nick Dzubnar on special teams early on.
Cornerbacks (6): Chris Harris Jr., Michael Davis, Asante Samuel Jr. (R), Ryan Smith, Brandon Facyson, Tevaughn Campbell
The Chargers got much-needed help at the cornerback spot when they drafted Samuel in the second round of this year’s draft. He’ll figure in as the team’s third corner behind Harris and Davis but should be considered considered a starter as it’s expected that the defense will still rely heavily on Nickel looks in today’s NFL. In those situations, Harris will be the team’s slot defender while Samuel and Davis are outside.
Smith, Facyson, and Campbell will provide the depth at the position with Smith likely to fill one of the gunner roles on punt/kick coverages.
Safeties (4): Derwin James, Nasir Adderley, Alohi Gilman, Mark Webb (R)
James hopes to return to the field in 2021 alongside the rest of the young, exciting talent on the defensive side of the ball. After a First-Team All-Pro season as a rookie, the entire NFL landscape is hoping number 33 hits the ground running.
Adderley underwhelmed in his first season as a starter in 2020 but a new defensive scheme where he’s not forced to be the only line of defense at the third level should raise his confidence and allow him to play faster. He’s too talented not to bounce back.
Both Gilman and Webb fit the mold of a standard strong/box safety in the NFL. Neither offer sideline-to-sideline range and their best contributions will be in stopping the run. Both should be cutting their teeth on special teams, as well.
Special Teams (3): Cole Mazza, Michael Badgley, Ty Long
As of now, the Chargers have competition at each of the three special teams spots. Badgley must beat out two other kickers while Long and Mazza each have one additional player to compete with. In the end, I think the three incumbents win out.