SAN DIEGO –The Chargers believe they improved their pass rush and third-down defense in one fell swoop Thursday night.
After reloading the offensive line and receiving corps in free agency, General Manager A.J. Smith used San Diego’s first-round draft choice to select South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram at No. 18 overall.
Ingram, 6-foot-1 ½ and 264 pounds, will play outside linebacker and harass opposing quarterbacks for the Bolts. He made 19 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in the last two seasons.
“The fans are going to love this guy because of his physical nature, aggressiveness, his attitude toward the game and his abilities. He’s a playmaker and he’s going to bring the heat, which is what we’re looking for,” Smith said. “Pass rusher was something that was a top priority and we got that done.”
Ingram, a 225-pound scoring point guard in high school that still can execute standing backflips, ran a fake punt 68 yards for a touchdown in his last year at South Carolina, also recovering two fumbles for touchdowns and intercepting two passes as the Gamecocks won a school-record 11 games. Ingram also recovered an onside kick as a member of the hands team.
Head Coach Norv Turner called him the most complete, versatile linebacker in the draft.
“Coach (John) Pagano will use him all over the place,” Smith said. “He can play strong-side, weak-side, and inside in the nickel. He’s an exceptional player who can do many different things.”
Ingram trained for the Combine at Velocity Sports Performance in Irvine, Calif., just a few hours North of Chargers Park. His main practice partner was Von Miller, last year’s No. 2 overall pick and AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year for Denver.
“He always told me stuff like stay focused, always grind, always work hard,” said Ingram, who strives to emulate Miller’s early success.
Ingram called receiving a phone call from Smith, Turner, Chargers President Dean Spanos and “one of the best moments of my life.” The Bolts have seven more draft picks to execute, starting with the 17th pick of the second round Friday, but took a collective moment after the pick to enjoy the result of their labor.
“The more pass rushers you have in the National Football League, the better you’re going to become defensively,” said Pagano, in his first year as defensive coordinator for the Chargers. “Any time you can add pieces to the puzzle, the thing we’re trying to build here in San Diego with our defense, you’re always excited.”
The Chargers expect
Last year, injuries forced some of San Diego’s outside linebackers to play upwards of 750 snaps. The team believes that will change with the addition of Johnson and Ingram.
“Only two guys start and run out of the tunnel and go underneath the helmet, but we don’t really care about that,” Smith said. “We’d love to have four pass-rushers to some degree. All of them healthy would be nice. And put them all in the mix for Coach Pagano and turn it loose.
“If we’ve got a fifth one … fine. We’ll take it. But our goal is to try and get four of them creating havoc so that we can make it a little bit easier on the guys at the back end.”
Said Turner: “When this defense has been at its best, we’ve had multiple players playing well at the outside linebacker position. We’ve been able to roll them in there. Melvin can be an impact player. He doesn’t have to be on the field every down.”
The Chargers coveted Ingram, but were not sure he’d remain unclaimed by the time the 18th pick rolled around. When Seattle selected West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin at No. 15 overall, the first outside pass-rusher taken in the draft, Smith felt there would be a run, and San Diego was in good position to capitalize, taking Ingram and turning away three teams interested in trading up.
Ingram represents the sixth time in eight years the Bolts have selected a defensive player in the first round.