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2021 PFF Grades for the Chargers’ new-look defense

How do the new names look on paper?

NFL: Houston Texans at Chicago Bears Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past five days, the Chargers have added four new players to their defense. At least three of them, if not all, will likely start week one. Those are some serious money moves that show everyone the Chargers are truly going all-in this offseason.

With a good chunk of the defense already looking quite different, I thought I’d do a rundown on the current projected starters on that side of the ball via their Pro Football Focus grades from this past season.

Here’s what the team’s starting defense would look like today in both Nickel (five defensive backs) and in their base front (3-4).

Edge defender: Khalil Mack - 73.0

This grade is going to look a lot worse than it is. Mack played in seven games this past year, just his second season where he didn’t start every game and his first where he missed more than three games. In my opinion, it’s better to look at his 2020 grade of 92.3 as a more accurate idea of his current ability.

Defensive tackle: Sebastian Joseph-Day - 61.6

Joseph-Day is one of the best young run defenders in the NFL. Anyone will tell you that. However, his PFF grades don’t exactly paint the same glittering picture. His run defense grade was just 65.0 (a little above average) and his 57.9 pass-rush grade is just under average. At the end of the day, he’s rejoining Staley where he’s immediately the best defensive tackle on the team.

Nose Tackle (Base): Breiden Fehoko - 51.1

A former undrafted free agent out of LSU, Fehoko has shown flashes of being an excellent run defender when given the chance. You can tell he plays with a chip on his shoulder that he’s carried with him since his days in Death Valley. As a former high-rated high school recruit, Fehoko is trying to show the Chargers he can be an impactful player, wherever he ends up on the field for the Chargers. As of now, with Linval Joseph now a free agent, Fehoko is the team’s next best option at nose tackle ahead of the draft.

Oh, and fun fact: Fehoko was the number one defensive tackle in 2021 in terms of run stop win rate with at least 65 snaps defending the run. The guy right behind him at number two? His new teammate, Sebastian Joseph-Day.

Defensive tackle: Austin Johnson - 58.3

Adding to the blurb above on run stop win rate, Johnson is also decently placed on that list at 18th. Where was former first-round pick Jerry Tillery you may ask? Lower. Much lower at 122nd.

Gross.

At 6’4 and 314 pounds, Johnson is another space eater for the Chargers that really emerged as a first-year starter with the Giants in 2021. He recorded a career-high 3.5 sacks and 72 total tackles. He’s a better pass-rusher than run-stopper according to PFF (63.3 grade vs. 53.9) but again, you have to take the grades with a grain of salt.

Edge defender: Joey Bosa - 85.8

Ah, yes. The Chargers’ pride and joy up front. The big bear, himself, Mr. Bosa.

Bosa was the Chargers’ highest-rated defender this past season as he secured an elite pass-rush grade of 90.3 while finishing with a suspiciously-low 68.4 as a run defender. I call bulls*** on that one, but like I just said, take it with a grain.

It took a bit for Bosa to get used to the standup alignment he transitioned to in 2021 but his production ended up coming on as we all expected it to.

Linebacker: Kenneth Murray - 34.0

If you cringed just now, I don’t blame you. If the Chargers don’t re-sign Kyzir White — and I doubt they will after their signings from yesterday — Murray will be next in line to start in the middle.

In his second season, saying Murray struggled would be a massive understatement. He was consistently one of the worst-graded defenders on the team each week and his overall grade was by far the worst on the team for any player who managed at least 200 snaps played. He was a liability each time he stepped on the field and that was especially true in coverage. His grade of 38.1 in that area was the worst on the team by six whole points.

No matter what big names the Chargers add on defense, their linebacker group cannot be helmed by a pair that includes Murray. That’s just asking for trouble.

Linebacker: Drue Tranquill - 64.6

After flashing as a special teams ace during his rookie seaosn, Tranquill’s sophomore campaign was cut short to injury in week one of the 2020 season. In 2021, Tranquill returned to the starting lineup where he played mainly alongside Kyzir White in the team’s new 3-4 defensive front.

Tranquill finished with a decent overall grade but struggled in run defense with a 45.4. Things were a bit brighter in coverage as he earned his position group’s best grade there at 74.7. When blitzing, Tranquill was quite disruptive, as well. His 68.8 pass-rush grade was also tops among the team’s linebackers.

Cornerback (Nickel): Asante Samuel Jr. - 56.4

Samuel kicked off his rookie season with back-to-back Pepsi Rookie of the Week honors within the first month of play. He did suffer a pair of concussions which is scary for such a young player so early on. Prior to the concussions, Samuel picked off a pair of passes, including one during the team’s road victory against the Chiefs. When he returned from his second concussion, Samuel was fine albeit for a couple big interference calls that are unfortunately part of his game.

The 2020 second-round pick earned a 57.4 grade in coverage and finished with a dismal 49.7 in run defense. That must improve if he wants to remain on the field as much as possible.

Cornerback: J.C. Jackson - 82.7

The Chargers’ big-time free agent signing immediately improves a Chargers secondary that failed to have a single cornerback finish with a grade above 57.0 (minimum 100 snaps played).

“Mr. INT” snagged eight interceptions alone in 2021, one more than the entire Chargers defense from a year ago. In 2020, Jackson had a career-high nine picks. In all, he has 25 in his first four professional seasons.

Jackson ended this past season with a solid run defense grade of 75.8 while notching an 83.0 in coverage. His play-making ability and nose for the football could unlock a whole new level for this defense to ascend to.

Cornerback: Michael Davis - 54.0

After signing a new contract prior to the 2021 season, Davis had the lowest-graded season of his career. His coverage grade plummeted to a 54.4 while his run defense grade also dropped to an abysmal 49.4. Those numbers rank 96th and 88th among 115 qualifying cornerbacks from last season.

Davis was seemed to be well-suited for Staley’s man-heavy scheme due to his elite athleticism and length, yet he struggled out the gate and only got a bit better as the year went on. The first three weeks of the season, Davis recorded three of his bottom-five outings of the year. With only two game grades of over 70.0, Davis will have to bounce back in a big way to keep this defense from underachieving for another year.

Safety: Derwin James - 78.1

When looking at James’ game grades throughout the year, you’ll notice a pretty up-and-down theme. He began the year with an elite 90.0 game grade against Washington and also had games of 85.0 (week six) and 91.1 (week 12). But on the flip side, James recorded five games of below 60.0, including three under 50.0. At the end of the day, I’m chalking it up to 2021 being James’ first full season since his rookie campaign because this can’t do any wrong in my eyes.

Before I forget, James was still an animal as a blitzer. He earned a pass-rush grade of 86.2 in 2021.

Safety: Nasir Adderley - 66.2

Adderley had one of the best bounce back seasons by a Chargers player in 2021. He finished with notable 70.7 grader in run defense and had a fine 61.3 in coverage. After struggling to be the team’s “last line of defense” in Gus Bradley’s three-high scheme, Adderley found a comfort zone in Staley’s split safety coverage that allowed him to play faster and with less on his plate. He also showed his endurance as he returns in 2022 as the team leader in snaps played from a year ago (987).