OTA Chargers: Khalil Mack is gradually settling in, the off-season competition is preparing


COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Chargers held their first organized team activity of the spring Monday at the team facility.

Here are my notes, takeaways, and observations.

1. The Chargers will host nine more volunteer OTAs in May and June before a mandatory two-day veteran minicamp on June 14-15. The team will then take a month-and-a-half break before the start of training camp at the end of July. As these practices are voluntary, some players were absent on Monday. Edge rusher Joey Bosa, running back Austin Ekeler, wide receiver Mike Williams, cornerback JC Jackson, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. were not on the field during the game of training open to the media.

Bosa and Ekeler never show up before minicamp. They prefer to train alone. Williams and Jackson have been at the facility this offseason but didn’t make it Monday. Brandon Staley said Jackson, the Chargers’ new hot spot, had plane trouble returning from Boston but is expected to be back on the field this week. The Chargers have two more OTAs this week Tuesday and Thursday. Murray was at the facility in rehab after his ankle surgery in April, so it’s no surprise he wasn’t on the pitch.

2. The only headache of the absentees is Tillery. The Chargers declined his fifth-year option for 2023 earlier this month, meaning he’s now set to enter free agency after this season. They also completely revamped their defensive line room through the draft and free agency, bringing in four new pieces – Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Morgan Fox and rookie Otito Ogbonnia. With the Chargers also re-signing Christian Covington, Tillery’s role on the team is now a bit murky. Fox’s best attribute is his rushing inside pass. He had six sacks playing for Staley with the Rams in 2020 and was a starter in known passing situations inside next to Aaron Donald. The only value Tillery brings is as an inside sleight of hand. It is a liability against the race. The Chargers signed Fox to fill that inside passer role. So where does that leave Tillery?

“He’s going to fit into this competition of guys who are going to have to earn a role,” Staley said of Tillery and the defensive linemen. “I think during this spring and during training camp, all these guys are going to have to really fight to establish themselves. Sebastian and Austin are confirmed NFL players. They are confirmed NFL players. Khalil Mack is a seasoned NFL player. Derwin James is a seasoned NFL player. Then there are a bunch of guys trying to prove themselves, to earn their place in the league. And I would put it in that category.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The Chargers kept five defensive linemen on their 53-man roster last season. At times, that number jumped to six as the Chargers dealt with injuries up front. Currently, the Chargers have five defensive linemen who are virtual locks to make the 53: Joseph-Day, Johnson, Ogbonnia, Fox and Covington. Then they also have Breiden Fehoko, Joe Gaziano and Forrest Merrill on the roster.

The evidence is pretty compelling: Tillery is in a battle to make this list. We’ll see if he shows up at OTAs over the next three weeks.

3. Fox was one of three free agent acquisitions after the Chargers draft. The other two also came on defense with cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Kyle Van Noy. We hadn’t spoken to Staley since the draft, so we got his thoughts on these two additions.

The main themes with Callahan and Van Noy are experience and versatility.

Callahan played his six seasons under Vic Fangio in Chicago and Denver and crossed paths with Staley at both stops, with the Bears in 2017-18 and the Broncos in 2019. Staley came under Fangio and is effectively running the same pattern. Callahan’s familiarity with the system is therefore important. There is experience. Callahan also has the ability to play inside to defend the slot and outside. He’s played more inside than outside during his career, but Staley said the Broncos signed Callahan in 2019 to play outside because they had Chris Harris Jr. as a cornerback. slot machine at the time. There is your versatility.

Van Noy played nine seasons in the league and won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. Staley has spoken often this offseason about adding players with championship pedigree, and Van Noy certainly has that. There is your experience. Van Noy can also play in several positions in defense. He’s produced as an edge carrier and off-ball linebacker, so he can provide depth in two places. He even carried the green dot as a defensive caller during his time in New England. There is your versatility.

Here’s Staley on Callahan: “He’s one of the best slot cover players in the league, and he really has been since he started in Chicago. So he really gives us a boost there in the slot because of his experience, especially in our system. But he also played away. … So the reason I think Bryce is such a good player is because he can play both places effectively. But the experience and playing ability he has within our defense, he’s been on some of the best defenses in the NFL throughout his career. He was a playmaker, a ball producer. And we think he has real tenacity.

And on Van Noy, talking about his advantage and off-ball flex: “His trademark is that he can do either. He can play on the edge. He can play behind the ball. He is a very versatile player, but what he does best is that he is extremely instinctive. He’s a playmaker. He can make plays in both of those positions and he can run the show. … We just think that versatility is really going to help us, and that championship experience. He’s a Super Bowl champion. He’s been in the top five defenses really everywhere he’s been.

4. Signing Callahan is going to have a ripple effect in the secondary. With the way the roster was built coming out of the draft, Asante Samuel Jr. was in line to start at the nickel corner. Samuel played exclusively outside last season, but the Chargers always felt he had the skills to play inside from the time they drafted him in the second round last year. latest. Meanwhile, Samuel excelled away from home last season. Callahan provides depth in the slot, and that will free up the Chargers to play more Samuel on the outside when they move to nickel forfeits without moving James or another safety into the slot.

“It doesn’t require you to play Asante inside,” Staley said. “We definitely want Asante to train there because he has a lot of good skills to play in the slot. But we don’t have to, and I think what we were hoping for is to make sure that we get our best combination of secondary players on the pitch, and I think through some of the acquisitions that we have been able to do in free agency, the draft, now we’re in a position to really put that best combination of secondary players out there.

5. As with Tillery, the moves the Chargers made in the secondary this offseason have raised questions about Michael Davis’ role in 2022. Davis signed a three-year, $25.2 million contract last offseason and has capped nearly $10 million for it. season. However, it has no locked start job. The Chargers could end up opting for a combination of Jackson, Samuel and Callahan as their starting corner trio in nickel packages, with Davis on the bench as their fourth corner. They also drafted two corners on Day 3 in Ja’Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard.

I don’t think Davis’s situation is as bad as Tillery’s. He should have a place on the list. But his path to playing time is a bit murkier now than it was this time last year. Davis didn’t embrace Staley’s plan in 2021 as quickly or as effectively as the team expected. He still has something to prove.

“Vato is going to be in on it there,” Staley said of Davis. “It will be very competitive in the secondary. I think what we’ve done is we’ve gained a lot of depth in order to make it a competition. And I think that’s what we were looking for, really in all phases of our team, but I’m thinking specifically of defense and kicking. We really wanted to make sure we got the best of the best so we could know who these guys are going next season who are going to compete, start, play for us, win a role. And Mike is going to be right in the middle of this competition for us.

6. Murray underwent ankle surgery in early April. Staley said the hope is the former first-round pick will be ready for training camp.

“The schedule is for him to be full speed ahead for training camp, and I think by the summer, until training camp starts, just the rehabilitation process,” said Staley. “I know he will soon be able to carry his weight here. And then once it starts, it’s really, hey, a sprint to get to training camp. But we expect him to attend training camp.

7. Mack missed the final 10 games last season with a foot injury. The Chargers are putting him back in action early this offseason, as has been common with other injured players under Staley’s tenure as head coach. Mack was working with the coaches on the side during individual drills on Monday. We were only able to watch the first 30 minutes of training, so we didn’t see any of the full squad periods. Staley said Mack participated in the 11-on-11 walkthrough and jog.

“He’s in really good shape,” Staley said of Mack. “He has a lot of confidence in where he is right now. We just want to make sure we phase it the right way. He’s going to be in all the stepping stuff, jogging stuff, but we want to make sure in the individual exercises that he just comes back the right way. He could probably be going full speed right now, as you’ve probably seen. It seems good. But we just want to make sure we phase it correctly.

(Photo by Khalil Mack: Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

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