Saturday, July 13, 2024

State of the roster: Chargers looking to take the next steps

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The Chargers hit the practice field Wednesday morning at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa with a chance to put the past firmly in the past.

Some players and coaches said during spring practices that they had forgotten all about their epic playoff collapse last January. Others said their 31-30 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars remained unforgettable, and not in a good way but in a way that will inspire them this season.

At first glance, the 2023 Chargers appear to be a stronger, deeper and more experienced team than the 2022 group, which won four of its final five games to finish the regular season with a 10-7 record and reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2018 season.

Brandon Staley is back for his third season as their coach, with Kellen Moore as their new offensive coordinator, lured away from the Dallas Cowboys. Derrick Ansley takes over as the new defensive coordinator.

It’s anticipated that there will be camp battles at a number of positions, including backup running back, backup wide receiver, starting tight end, starting safety and, perhaps most intriguing of all, at kicker. Competition can be a good thing, especially for a team looking to take the next step.

Quarterback Justin Herbert, the NFL’s second-leading passer last season, is due for a mammoth contract extension, which could be one rather large storyline throughout training camp. Running back Austin Ekeler didn’t get the extension he hoped for, but he is back in the fold for the 2023 season.

Several players who suffered season-ending injuries last season, including edge rusher Joey Bosa (groin), cornerback J.C. Jackson (knee) and offensive lineman Rashawn Slater (biceps) are expected to be back to full strength for training camp. Several others might not be 100%, however.

Here’s a detailed look at the Chargers as they begin training camp:

QUARTERBACK

Notables: Justin Herbert, Easton Stick, Max Duggan

Key additions: If all goes well, and that always requires a great leap of faith when it comes to the Chargers, Herbert will keep Stick and Duggan on the sidelines this season. Stick is likely to win the backup’s role in a camp battle with draft pick Duggan. Herbert looked sharp in spring practices after undergoing offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Stick appeared well ahead of Duggan in the spring.

Key losses: Well-traveled Chase Daniel departed as a free agent after he was Herbert’s backup for the past two seasons. Daniel took only a handful of snaps over five games in two seasons, including four games in relief of Herbert in the 2022 season.

RUNNING BACK

Notables: Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley, Isaiah Spiller, Zander Horvath

Key additions: The Chargers will roll with Ekeler, one of the NFL’s most versatile backs and its leader in overall touchdowns with 18 last season and 20 during the 2021 season, plus Kelley and Spiller as much-needed backups. Horvath will be the fullback.

Key losses: Sony Michel was signed to inject some depth into the Chargers’ lackluster ground game last season, but he didn’t perform as needed and he signed with the Rams during the offseason. Otherwise, it’s status quo in the backfield.

RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Notables: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Quentin Johnston, Derius Davis, Josh Palmer, Jalen Guyton, Gerald Everett, Donald Parham Jr., Tre’ McKitty, Stone Smartt

Key additions: Johnston was the Chargers’ first-round draft pick, a playmaker from TCU who is expected to give Herbert an additional downfield threat. Davis will battle with Palmer and Guyton for playing time in addition to returning punts and kicks. The tight end corps remains the same with Everett and Parham battling for the starting spot with McKitty and Smartt dueling for playing time behind them.

Key losses: DeAndre Carter, a backup wide receiver who also returned punts and kickoffs, signed with the Las Vegas Raiders during the offseason.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Notables: Rashawn Slater, Zion Johnson, Corey Linsley, Jamaree Salyer, Trey Pipkins III, Will Clapp, Foster Sarell, Brenden Jaimes

Key additions: Jordan McFadden was the Chargers’ fourth-round pick, a guard from Clemson who was the latest in a line of selections taken in the draft to improve their offensive line after Johnson (first round in 2021) and Salyer (sixth round in ’21). Zack Bailey was on the field for only one snap last season, so he might as well be new.

Key losses: Storm Norton, who lost a training camp battle last summer with Pipkins and served as a backup last season, signed with the New Orleans Saints in the offseason. He played 35 games, including 18 starts, in three years with the Chargers. Matt Feiler signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Notables: Sebastian Joseph-Day, Mordan Fox, Austin Johnson, Otito Ogbonnia, Christopher Hinton, Nick Williams, Scott Matlock.

Key additions: Matlock was the Chargers’ sixth-round draft pick from Boise State. Johnson and Ogbonnia did not participate in spring practices because of knee injuries suffered last season, so the Chargers signed Williams to bolster an offensive line thinned by their absences. This is a key position for the Chargers if they hope to improve their overall defense, especially against the run. When they return, it will seem as if Johnson and Ogbonnia are newcomers to the Chargers’ defensive line.

Key losses: Christian Covington signed with the Detroit Lions in the offseason.

EDGE RUSHER

Notables: Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Tuli Tuipulotu, Chris Rumph II

Key additions: Tuipulotu was the Chargers’ second-round draft pick after a stellar career at USC, a much-desired addition to a position that was extremely thin after Bosa suffered a season-ending groin injury that required surgery. Rumph will be in a camp battle with Tuipulotu for playing time.

Key losses: Kyle Van Noy didn’t re-sign with the Chargers after playing a key role after Bosa was injured, shifting over from the inside linebacker spot. Either Tuipulotu or Rumph or maybe both will take his spot as a backup edge rusher this coming season.

LINEBACKER

Notables: Eric Kendricks, Kenneth Murray Jr., Nick Niemann, Amen Ogbongbemiga, Daiyan Henley

Key additions: The Chargers added Kendricks in an attempt to replace Drue Tranquill, who signed with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs during the offseason. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Kendricks, a former UCLA standout who spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He’ll be asked to do all that Tranquill did last season, and then some at what looks like a thin position. Henley was the Chargers’ third-round draft pick out of Washington State.

Key losses: Tranquill led the Chargers with 144 tackles last season (93 solo). He had five sacks and eight quarterback hits plus one interception and one forced fumble in 17 games. Troy Reeder and Derek Tuszka, who played mostly on special teams last season, also departed.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Notables: Derwin James Jr., Alohi Gilman, JT Woods, J.C. Jackson, Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis, Ja’Sir Taylor

Key additions: None

Key losses: Cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Nasir Adderley didn’t re-sign.

SPECIALISTS

Notables: Cameron Dicker, JK Scott, Dustin Hopkins, Josh Harris

Key additions: None. Dicker and Hopkins will battle for the kicker’s spot. Scott is the punter and Harris the long-snapper.

Key losses: None

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