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Why the Chargers drafted Zion Johnson

Immense versatility gives Johnson one of the highest floors for any prospect in this year’s draft.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, Brandon Staley took the 2020 offensive line, locked them in a room, and set off a bundle of dynamite. He blew the entire unit up in an effort to jumpstart all of the necessary changes the Bolts needed to go through if they wanted to be a competitor in 2021. That included drafting Rashawn Slater with the 13th-overall pick last year after they had signed 2020 All-Pro Corey Linsley and underrated veteran Matt Feiler.

With their first-round pick in this year’s draft, the Chargers continued to reinforce the protective wall in front of Justin Herbert by selecting Boston College offensive guard Zion Johnson, one of the smartest and most-versatile lineman in the entire class.

At the time, the Chargers could have selected Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning or edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. Both players would have been fantastic picks, but the Bolts erred on the side of rare intangibles that aren’t the easiest to either coach or instill into a player.

At 6’3 and 315 pounds, Johnson doesn’t have the craziest of measureables, but his 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands are freakishly long and allow him to ensnare opposing defensive lineman long before they can ever get close to his quarterback.

During his time at the NFL combine, Johnson ran a respectable 5.18 in the forty, but his 32 reps on the bench press and 32-inch vertical were the real head-turners. That type of athleticism is something Tom Telesco has always coveted in his offensive lineman and it doesn’t look like things are changing under Staley.

After they played the majority of the 2022 season with a pair of backups holding down the right side of the offensive line, everyone knew the Chargers needed to find at least one starter in the draft. Adding someone like Johnson gives the Chargers a lineman with a very high floor that could play just about any position on the line in a pinch. His broad shoulders and thick upper body are why scouts and analysts call him a “phone booth guard”, meaning that he’s the type of guy you wouldn’t ever want to fight within a small area of space. Of course, this all adds to his strong performance as a pass protector.

Johnson’s lateral agility also makes him an easy fit within the Chargers’ zone-run scheme. He’s rock-solid in his zone fundamentals where he consistently works hip-to-hip with his teammates to devour defensive linemen en route to smothering second-level defenders. His quick get-off and swift footwork makes cutting off backside three-techniques look fairly routine and I absolutely cannot wait to see him slot in either on the right side or in between Slater and Linsley.

Of course, in that scenario, Feiler kicks out to right tackle which actually sounds like a pretty good idea following this selection. That’s probably what I’d consider the best-case scenario for the front five, in all honesty. Johnson getting the chance to roll into his NFL career while bookended by a pair of All-Pro linemen is one heck of a way to begin his time as a professional football player. However, in his media availability following the pick, Telesco noted that they view Johnson as a right guard and believe Feiler should remain on the left side.

At the end of the day, the Chargers added one of the best players in the draft, regardless of position. While it may not essentially “move the needle” for many fans, Johnson is the type of player that will immediately upgrade the position group and likely play a solid 10-12 years in the NFL, all of which should be with the Chargers.

If I had to give this pick a letter grade, I think I’d give this a strong A-. That feels right.

In the comments below, let me know how you’re all feeling about this pick and whether or not you agree with my assessment above!