The Chargers came into the 2023 preseason with several question marks along the roster. Luckily, none of them involved starting positions, but those who serve backup roles — and sometimes even third-stringers with this franchise — usually find themselves at one time or another in a situation where the team needs them to step up. Injuries happen and this team knows that better than most clubs.
Below are four position battles happening right now on the Chargers and who I believe currently leads the fight ahead of Friday night’s preseason finale.
Sixth Wide Receiver
Leader in the clubhouse: Keelan Doss
Jalen Guyton has been out of commission since tearing his ACL against the Jaguars in week three of last season. He only recently returned to rehab with the Chargers this week — as far as any beat reporters have been able to confirm — but could that be too late to save his roster spot from either John Hightower or Keelan Doss?
Hightower had been a training camp darling through the first few weeks as he seemed to be good for a 50-yard touchdown just about every other practice. However, an injury kept him out of the team’s first preseason contest and he returned just in time to catch one pass for 10 yards against the Saints.
Doss, on the other hand, has led the team in receiving yards both weeks of the preseason thus far. He caught three passes against the Rams for 37 yards and another three against the Saints for 42 yards. Add on the fact he’s built like the prototypical Chargers wideout at 6’3 and 215 pounds and it’s tough not to believe he’s in the running to be the team’s final wide receiver kept behind Derius Davis.
Leader in the clubhouse: Foster Sarell
The Chargers needed to add depth at the offensive tackle position this offseason after they were forced start sixth-round rookie Jamaree Salyer at left tackle in place of Rashawn Slater. Their tackle depth was tested even further during the three games missed by Trey Pipkins which forced former UDFA Foster Sarell into the starting lineup. During the 2023 NFL draft, the Chargers chose to pass on any bonafide tackle and instead selected Clemson’s Jordan McFadden who — despite playing left tackle for the Tigers — was presumed to go through a transition to guard at the next level. He’s received some reps with the first team at the blindside in camp but has yet to play a snap there during a preseason game.
So as it stands, nothing has changed in the pecking order for the team’s swing tackle. Sarell has been working alongside Slater and Pipkins this offseason in Dallas with Duke Manyweather so you know he’s been with the right people to kickstart his development, but he hasn’t shown much this month against the twos and threes of opposing teams. Here’s to hoping a move is made prior to final cuts.
Third Tight End
Leader in the clubhouse: Tre’ McKitty
Another position the Chargers needed to take a look at in the draft was tight end. As much fun Gerald Everett has been as an athletic starter for the Bolts, he’s not the long-term answer and the Chargers need to find a well-rounded replacement for the future. The problem is, the Chargers decided against throwing even a late-round dart at someone as a developmental prospect. Instead, they signed Michael Ezeike from UCLA who has barely sniffed the field the past two games.
Behind Everett and Donald Parham, I believe there’s been a legit competition for snaps as the team’s third tight end. It doesn’t sound important, but the Chargers have often used multiple tight end sets the past two years and that’s not going to change a whole lot under Kellen Moore. But with that in mind, the two fighting for those snaps have been former third-round pick McKitty and 2021 UDFA Stone Smartt.
Both players have their drawbacks. McKitty was a penalty magnet in 2022 with six flags while playing 45 percent of the offensive snaps on the year. He also was the author of several bad drops. However, he’s got NFL size and the Chargers need better blocking at the position. Thats not to say the best option there is McKitty, but the staff likely believes in him more than Smartt who is currently listed at 226 pounds on the team’s roster.
At the same time, Smartt continues to get more looks on the field this preseason over McKitty as a receiver. He caught four passes during the 2022 regular season and just led the Chargers with four catches against the Saints compared to McKitty’s singular catch this month.
It will be interesting to see what happens with both players during and after this season, but it looks like McKitty will remain in his role as the team’s third tight end for now.
Backup Right Guard
Leader in the clubhouse: Zack Bailey
Early in camp, rumblings came out that 2021 fifth-round pick Brenden Jaimes could be on the chopping block come final cuts after former UDFA Zack Bailey had been drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff. Bailey had mainly played tackle in the NFL but transitioned to guard earlier this offseason. So far through two preseason games, Bailey is the Chargers’ highest-graded offensive player on the team with an 86.2 overall mark. His 84.1 run block grade is tops on the team while his 81.0 pass block grade is second only to Zion Johnson (85.8).
As for Jaimes, he’s played mainly as the team’s third center Will Clapp. In two games, he’s graded out at 64.3. If the writing on the wall wasn’t already there, it’s likely set in permanent ink now that they don’t even have him fighting to beat rookie Jordan McFadden for at least one of the backup spots along the interior.