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Chargers draft versatile DL Tuli Tuipulotu at No. 21 in Mel Kiper’s latest mock

Tuipulotu was named the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year this season.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the areas hit the hardest by injuries for the Chargers in 2022 was the front line of the defense.

Defensive tackle Austin Johnson missed half the season. Sebastian Joseph-Day missed several games. Edge rusher Joey Bosa missed 12 games. Backup edge rusher Chris Rumph missed a handful of contests. Rookie defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia missed every game after being injured against the 49ers late in the year.

Yeah, it was a lot.

In Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft over at ESPN, he saw this issue plain as day and how much those circumstances affected the Chargers’ run defense. He mocked defensive tackle to the Bolts prior to the 2019 draft just before they drafted Jerry Tillery in the first round — anotehr time they couldn’t stop the run — and he’s doing the same thing once again as the Chargers still couldn’t mitigate the yards on the ground in the year of our lord 2022.

So what’s the potential quick fix for the Chargers? How about a versatile defensive lineman with size, athleticism, and a toolbox full of pass rush moves.

With the 21st-overall pick, Kiper has the Chargers selecting USC defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu, a 6’4, 290-pound quarterback hunter who racked up 13.5 sacks for the Trojans in 2022.

Why is he potential a perfect fit in Los Angeles? Let’s see what Kiper had to say about this selection:

“Here’s what I wrote in my first mock draft of last year’s cycle: ‘The Chargers again struggled against the run in 2021, an issue that has plagued them for years. Just go back to their 2018 divisional round playoff game against the Patriots, when they were dominated up front. They allowed 4.8 yards per carry this season, which ranked 28th in the NFL.’”

How are we back here again? L.A. allowed an even worse 5.4 yards per carry this season, which ranked last in the league. It also allowed 5.9 yards per play, which ranked 29th. This is a massive issue. General manager Tom Telesco has taken offensive linemen in the first round in back-to-back drafts, so this could be where he targets a big guy on defense. Tuipulotu played mostly on the edge for the Trojans and racked up 13.5 sacks last season, 8.5 of which came when he was lined up at end. At 290 pounds, though, he fits in L.A.’s 3-4 scheme as a big end who can help in the run game and take some pressure off Joey Bosa.

While a defensive lineman isn’t exactly what many fans want to see in the first round this year, it’s hard not to understand where Kiper is coming. And yes, yes, the injuries I touched on way up top played a role in those run game numbers looking so poor, but it honestly wasn’t all that pretty to begin with through the first handful of games prior to the injuries taking their toll.

The Chargers lacked much production from their front line until the pass rush and interior players started to find their stride during the second half of the season. While it was better late than never, the Chargers cannot have such a slow start once again in 2023.

Tuipulotu racked up 17 tackles for loss to go along with his 13.5 sacks, with most of his production coming from the edge. He’s not likely to play there should he land with the Chargers, but his physical makeup means he’d be a heck of a backup presence should the injury bug come around once again.

Whether in a two-point stance or with his hand in the dirt, Tuipulotu got the job done.

Per his scouting profile at The Draft Network, Tuipulotu’s biggest strengths are his ability to transform speed to power when collapsing the edge, his ability to rush from multiple alignments, and his ability to make plays in obvious passing situations.

On the other side, TDN scout Kyle Crabbs notes that Tuipulotu could have issues with hip/core flexibility and his functional length when attempting to clear blockers away from his chest.

But overall, the Chargers could do so much worse than the Pac-12’s Defensive Player of the Year, right?

In the comments below, let me know all of your thoughts regarding this potential selection and whether or not you’d be content with the Chargers adding this prospect from just down the road!