Links to discussions for other teams:
Almost everything about the Chargers’ defense was mediocre in 2021, except for the run defense which was near the bottom of the league at 4.6 yards per carry. While somewhat disheartening, such numbers are not surprising for a team in the first year with a new scheme. Like most NFL teams these days. Los Angeles will use a lot of different looks throughout a game, but under now second-year defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, they moved to a base 3-4 scheme. The other common happening when teams make major scheme changes is a big turnover in personnel between year one and year two. The Chargers are no exception, with many new faces in key positions for 2022.
Two of the three defensive line starters this season are new to the team. Austin Johnson replaces Linval Joseph at nose tackle, and Sebastian Joseph-Day replaces Justin Jones at defensive end opposite Jerry Tillery. Both new additions are proven commodities. Johnson lined up as a 3-4 end once in a while during his time with the Titans but has been playing nose tackle in a 3-4 since entering the league in 2016. He spent the last two seasons in the same role with the Giants. The Rams called Joseph-Day a tackle, but the responsibilities and alignment of the position he played would be considered defensive end by most 3-4 teams.
At 6-foot-4 and 314 pounds, Johnson is not the biggest of nose tackles but he is powerful and tough to move at the point of attack. Despite being a solid starter on the field over most of his first five seasons, he was a complete non-factor in fantasy terms. That all changed in what was, coincidentally, a contract year last season. After not recording more than 24 combined tackles in any other season, Johnson exploded for 30 tackles, 42 assists, and more than doubled his career sack total with 3.5. Those numbers made him the number eight tackle and a top-20 lineman in 2021.
Some managers will look only at last year’s numbers and target Johnson as a DT1 or DL2. Look further and closer before being one of those managers. On the positive side, Linval Joseph put up pretty good tackle totals at the position in 2021. On the other hand, Joseph had a long history of good tackle production whereas Johnson does not. Then there is the consideration of how often we see a player thrive in one situation and then flatline after signing elsewhere in free agency. This is not to suggest passing on Johnson completely, but expecting the same production he turned in last year might be a mistake. I like Johnson as a decent DT2 with a little upside but will be avoiding him in leagues combining the defensive line positions. The Chargers used a fifth-round pick on Otito Ogbonnia to compete with Andrew Brown for the job as Johnson’s primary backup.
Some of the same points can be made when considering Joseph-Day who was well on the way to the best season of his young career before last year’s injury shut him down. One big difference is that Joseph-Day was relatively productive before 2021, averaging 31 tackles, 19 assists, and 1.5 sacks over his first two years. Through eight games last season, he was on pace to shatter those marks at 46-30-6. The same skill set that made him a good starter for the Rams, should make Joseph-Day a good fit with the Chargers. The issue is, that many managers were able to play him as a tackle last year but may not have that option in 2022. I expect fairly similar numbers from Joseph-Day in his new situation. With 50-55 combined tackles and 3-5 sacks. If he is a defensive end in your league, that makes him a decent DL3 or bye-week plugin. If you can still play him as a tackle, however, the value will be significantly higher.
Jerry Tillery fills out the rest of the starting lineup. One reason Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was so successful as the Rams defensive coordinator was the presence of Aaron Donald. There is only one Aaron Donald in the league but the Chargers have an athletic big man in Tillery. He was a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2019. Like many other talented players, he struggled to find success in the previous scheme under Gus Bradley, recording 29 tackles and 5 sacks over his first two seasons. Tillery’s numbers have increased each year making the jump from 19-10-3 in his second season (2020) to 25-25-4.5 in 2021. He is on the cusp of becoming a viable IDP option. A second year in the scheme and potential improvement all around him, are positive factors.
Christian Covington and former Panther, Morgan Fox, provide the depth at defensive end. Having spent the first four years of his career with Houston, Covington is a 3-4 veteran. He held a significant role in the rotation last season, including several starts, and should continue in the same role in 2021.
Fox spent his first four years as a pro with the Rams before signing in Carolina last year, so there is plenty of familiarity between him and Brandon Staley. Fox has 12 career sacks with his best season coming in 2020 when he finished 21-6-6 with a pair of turnovers. He is a tad undersized at 6’3” and 275 pounds but adds some wiggle as a pass rusher.
- NT Austin Johnson – Decent DT2 with a bit of upside
- NT Otito Ogbonnia – No impact expected
- DE Jerry Tillery – Potential breakout player with a low DL3 floor
- DE Sebastian Joseph-Day – Probable DL3 with much more value where you can play him as a tackle
- DE Christian Covington – Marginal fantasy value
- DE Morgan Fox – Watchlist deep sleeper at best
- DE Breiden Fehoko – No impact
When it comes to evaluating the Chargers’ inside linebacker situation, we are hamstrung by not knowing exactly what they have or think they have, in Kenneth Murray. When the team drafted Murray in 2020, he was supposed to be the perfect fit in Gus Bradley’s scheme. As it turned out, that was not the case. He was miscast in Bradley’s scheme which called on Murray to perform responsibilities that were not in his wheelhouse. He was never comfortable in the defense and was even benched at one point. To his credit, Murray was still able to lead the team in tackles that season although the numbers (66-42) were well below expectations.
There was probably no one in the organization happier to see Bradley leave. When Renaldo Hill took over last year, he claimed Murray would be “turned loose to play downhill”. He was to have fewer and simple responsibilities in coverage and expected to blitz more often in passing situations. Fewer reads on running plays would allow Murray to react more quickly and rely on his instincts. In short, the defense will be much more like the one Murray played in at Oklahoma that led to his being a first-round pick. That was all music to the ears of Chargers fans and the many dynasty managers that drafted Murray as a rookie.
Unfortunately, the music faded quickly once the season started. Murray played every snap in Week 1, posting decent numbers of five tackles and four assists. In Week 2, his snap count fell below 80% but he managed another respectable box score of 5-3-0. Early in Week 3, Murray suffered an ankle injury that would force him to miss five games completely, and he was never at full strength the rest of the way. After allowing some time to see if the ankle would heal, Murry had surgery and is now expected to miss the start of training camp. As of mid-June, there is no timetable for his return though the team hopes he will be ready by September.
So how do we value Murray? What we have seen of him has not been particularly good but there are some extenuating circumstances to be considered. We can draw some optimism by looking at the production of last year’s starter, Kyzir White, who totaled 87-49-1 with 4 turnovers and averaged almost twelve points per game. On the other hand, Murray is a much different player than Kyzir who was once a safety. My head tells me Murray has the potential to be a breakout player and a late-round draft steal in his third season. Everything else inside me screams NO! Don’t do it.
With that in mind, I plan to let someone else roll the dice on Murray but I might have to pick up Drue Tranquill at the end of the draft. This guy is highly productive on a per snap basis. He recorded 61 tackles and 15 assists as a rookie in 2019. Those are not great numbers at a glance, but they take on a different perspective when considering he played just 382 snaps. Tranquill earned a starting job entering his second season but suffered a gruesome broken ankle in Week 1. He managed to be in uniform for the start of last season but was not 100% at that time, thus Kyzir White was the opening day starter next to Murray. After Murray was lost, Tranquill saw significant playing time in nine games but was bothered by a pectoral injury early in the year, followed by a stint on the COVID list, and a leg injury in December. In all, he played about 48% of the snaps in 2021, often working through nagging injuries, and finished 46-30-1.5 with a fumble recovery.
Tranquill is set to start again this year. The question is, will he play full-time? My guess is yes. There is a chance the Chargers will keep both inside backers on the field in nickel sub-packages. Last year they often pulled the nose tackle and went with two linemen on passing downs. Tranquill is faster and better in coverage than Murray, so if they are going to pull one of the inside linebackers, we might see Murray on the sideline. No one will be paying any attention to Tranquill, so he can be picked up in the last round of many drafts where there is nothing to lose if he does not pan out.
With Kyzir White moving on and lingering questions about Murray, the Chargers needed some experienced depth at inside linebacker. The addition of Troy Reeder solved that problem. Reeder did a more than adequate job while filling for the Rams several times over the last three seasons. He may never become a long-term starter in the league but can hold down the fort for his team if needed and put up decent points for yours in the process.
There is no question about who the Chargers starting edge defenders will be. Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack give Los Angeles an edge tandem to rival any in the league. Bosa did not miss a beat in the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker last year. According to Bosa himself, working from the two-point stance is good because he likes being able to see the whole field at the snap of the ball. The ten-and-a-half sacks he recorded last year support his statement and are about what we can expect from Bosa every year going forward. Unfortunately for IDP managers, so are the 36 tackles and 15 assists. As a defensive end, Bosa was a near-elite IDP prospect. Saddled with the linebacker tag, he will have some value in big-play-based leagues but will be no better than bye-week depth for most of us.
The story is the same for Mack. His career started with four monster seasons that saw him average almost 80 combined tackles, reach double-digit sacks three times, and force 13 turnovers. After leaving the Raiders in 2018, Mack has put up no more than 53 combined tackles in any season and has not reached double-digit sacks in three seasons. Getting away from the Bears could be a plus for the potential future Hall of Famer, but as long as he’s stuck with a linebacker designation, Mack will never give IDP managers significant value.
Both Bosa and Mack are perfect examples of why the fantasy football industry needs to get with the 20th century when it comes to IDP positions. Some of us geezers will remember the old days when great tight ends were rendered marginal because they were lumped in with receivers. This is the same kind of situation. Okay, let me put the soap box away again.
The Chargers are counting on second-year man, Chris Rumph II, to step up as their third man on the edge. He was not on the field a lot as a rookie but showed some good things when he played. Rumph managed 19 total tackles, 4 pressures, two quarterback hits, and a sack on 176 plays. He is working hard to add some muscle and the coaching staff expects to see a significant jump.
The ace in the hole here is versatile veteran Kyle Van Noy. He can play inside or out, is a good pass rusher, and has starting experience at every linebacker position in both three and four-man fronts. It would take an injury or two before Van Noy would have any chance to be an IDP factor, but he can be productive if it happens.
- ILB Kenneth Murray – Boom or bust candidate with a low floor and modest ceiling
- ILB Drue Tranquill – Should provide good tackle totals if he stays healthy
- ILB Troy Reeder – Injury sleeper with LB3 potential
- ILB Nick Niemann – No impact expected
- OLB Joey Bosa – Starter in big-play-based leagues, marginal value for others
- OLB Khalil Mack – Value limited by linebacker designation
- OLB Chris Rumph – Injury sleeper for big play leagues
- OLB Emeke Egbule – No impact
- OLB Kyle Van Noy – Deep injury sleeper
Switching between three and four-man fronts usually has minimal impact on the secondary, but in this case, there was a big difference in how the Chargers played at the third level between 2020 and 2021. The change had little to do with how the front seven aligned but was simply a different approach to secondary play than the previous staff.
Under the previous coaching regime, Los Angeles played a lot of cover-three or single-high on the back end. In these coverages, the free safety is always way off the ball, usually in the middle of the field, and provides the safety net as the last line of defense. Pretty much all teams use these alignments at times, but for the Chargers, cover-three was their base defense. Under Renaldo Hill, the Chargers ran split safeties much of the time, which completely changes the responsibilities of those players and gets the free safety more involved, particularly in run support.
The biggest issue for Derwin James over his first two seasons had nothing to do with the scheme. He simply was not able to stay healthy. James finally broke the curse in year three and was everything the Chargers organization and IDP managers thought he would be. At 6’2” and 215 pounds, James is both an enforcer and a playmaker in the secondary. In the team’s split safety scheme, he usually lines up on the strong side and often in the box at linebacker depth. That resulted in 75 solo tackles and 43 assists, despite missing a pair of games late in the year. Throw in his two sacks, five takeaways, and five pass breakups, and James’ 11.9 points per game landed him third among defensive backs. James is an elite talent on the field and an elite tier IDP target as well, providing he stays out of the trainer’s room.
For all those stubborn IDP managers that still choose to believe the scheme is not all that important, I give you Nasir Adderly. Under Gus Bradley in 2020, Adderly totaled 70 combined tackles, a pair of turnovers, and three passes defended, with virtually no IDP value. Last season he accounted for 97 tackles, half a sack, a pair of takeaways, and five pass breakups, for an average of almost nine and a half points per game, and was a good DB4.
Even in the split safety alignment, Adderly will never put up great fantasy numbers. He will draw the deep coverage duties more often and is not the playmaker James is. That said, Adderly is a sound tackler in the open field and does not shy away from run support. His tackle totals should remain good. If Adderly can muster a few more splash plays, he could easily find his way into fantasy lineups as a solid DB3.
The addition of J.C. Jackson instantly transforms the Chargers’ corner position from mediocre to a team strength. Jackson is arguably the best shut-down corner in the game, but he is sneaky about it. He has a knack for baiting quarterbacks into thinking the receiver is open, then jumping the throw for a pick. Like most great corners, Jackson is not going to make a ton of tackles but that is not the only way to score points. Over the past two seasons, he has 20 turnovers (17 by interception), 37 passes defended, and a score. Despite being just 44-12 in the tackle columns, Jackson was the fantasy game’s third-ranked corner and number eight defensive back in 2021. Corners that depend on big plays for fantasy value, tend to be a little inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, but corner is a position many managers choose to gamble on.
Jackson will team with last year’s second-round pick, Asante Samuel to give Los Angeles an outstanding tandem on the outside. With two interceptions in his first three games, Samuel quickly earned the respect of opponents, thus the rookie corner rule did not apply. We could see his numbers go up a bit this year, particularly in the interception and passes defended columns. A year of experience will be one factor but the bigger one will be opponents trying to decide if they should throw in the direction of Samuel or Jackson. It’s a tough call for which there is no right answer.
Rookie third-round pick, J.T. Woods will be given every opportunity to win the third safety job. He will be competing against third-year pro, Alohi Gillman, last year’s seventh-round pick Mark Webb, and veteran Trey Marshall to determine the pecking order behind the starters. Last year’s starter, Michael Davis, is expected to move back to the slot with veterans Bryce Callahan and Trevaughn Campbell competing for the rest of the playing time.
- SS Derwin James – Elite tier DB1
- FS Nasir Adderly – Quality depth with DB3 upside
- FS J.T. Woods – Injury sleeper
- FS Alohi Gilman – No impact
- SS Mark Webb – No impact
- FS Trey Marshall – No impact
- CB J.C. Jackson –CB1 or DB2 with week-to-week consistency voids
- CB Asante Samuel – Marginal fantasy impact
- CB Michael Davis – No impact
- CB Tevaughn Campbell – No impact
- CB Bryce Callahan – No impact
- CB JaSior Taylor – Developmental rookie
That does it for part eight of this year’s preseason offering. The Falcons are up next.
Enjoy this article? Find more from John here.
Continue reading this content with a ELITE subscription.
An ELITE subscription is required to access content for IDP (individual defensive players) leagues. If this league is not a IDP (individual defensive players) league, you can edit your leagues here.
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, NBC Sports EDGE