Camp Questions: Who Wins the Starting Free Safety Job?

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Training camp is right around the corner, and as always, there are several key storylines to keep an eye on at this point in the offseason.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll highlight some of the more noteworthy ones set to play out at Jack Hammett Sports Complex as well as during the preseason.

Who Wins the Starting Free Safety Job?

It’s safe to say Derwin James has the strong safety spot locked up.

After all, he’s coming off a rookie campaign that earned him All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors as he emerged as one of the most dynamic young defensive stars.

The free safety spot, however, is a totally different story.

The Bolts parted ways with Jahleel Addae this offseason, meaning they’ll have a new starter at the position come Week 1.

Who that will be remains to be seen, but based on comments from Head Coach Anthony Lynn, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley and others, among those who’ll get a crack at it are Rayshawn Jenkins, Jaylen Watkins and Nasir Adderley.

The 25-year-old Jenkins ended 2018 on a high note as the team rolled with him at free safety in both postseason contests. They were the first two starts at the position of his career, and he rewarded them with standout play, ranking among team leaders with 12 tackles.

Now, Jenkins aims to build off that strong finish by carving out a bigger role on defense this season.

“Things have slowed down a lot,” Jenkins said. “I’m heading into this season more confident, especially getting those last few games under my belt with those starts. It’s helped me feel a lot more comfortable because you can watch all the film you want, and you can practice all you want, but there’s nothing like real game reps. Once you get those real game reps, and you actually get to feel how guys are trying to attack you and the speed of the game, then you know you’ve been out there before and done it before. You can get back to who (you are). And those weren’t just game reps. Those were some of the most high-pressure game reps (you can have).”

Bradley agrees with that assessment, stressing how far Jenkins has come over the past calendar year.

“Rayshawn, I think was a guy that really (the question was) what position was he was going to play,” added Bradley. “We looked at strong safety, and then we also looked at him as a linebacker; maybe (have him) put on some weight and get up to 220, and him playing linebacker for us. And then toward the end of the year he played free safety. But what I think he’s done now, as he thinks that free safety opportunity is there for him, he’s dropped his weight. He’s under 200 pounds. He’s faster. I think he’s got a real good focus now where we want him to play, what we’re anticipating and what we’re hopeful that he does bring to the table. And I think he’s really bought into that. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles that in training camp as well. But he’s had good OTAs now. Good OTAs.”

Meanwhile, Watkins looks to pick up where he left off last summer when he was making a strong impression. The Chargers had high hopes for the athletic defensive back, who they inked to a one-year contract after he helped the Philadelphia Eagles capture a Super Bowl championship. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the team’s second preseason game that cost him the entire year. However, Watkins made such an impression on the Chargers that they re-signed him in late February before he could become a free agent.

Now he’s looking forward to rewarding their faith in him, proving his worth once again come training camp.

“It was tough,” he said about the injury. “I feel like I was having a pretty good camp, and things were working out for me as far as being here with these guys during the season…. And then for (the injury) to happen on a freak accident, just getting hit, it was very depressing. It was a long process, but (the Chargers) helped me get through it. So that’s the best part about being here.”

Get an up-close look at some of the top practice photos as the team takes the field for the final day of minicamp.

Another option at free safety is Adderley, the highly-regarded safety out of Delaware who was the Bolts’ second-round pick (60th-overall) of this year’s draft. Many pundits believed he was a lock for the first round, and in fact, the Chargers were often linked to him, as a litany of experts pegged him to L.A. with the 28th-overall pick.

The Bolts are obviously high on Adderley’s talent, but like anyone, he’ll have to prove worthy of a starting gig. After all, transitioning from the college level to the pros can be a daunting task. However, there’s a reason many, including NFL Network Draft Analyst and Chargers’ Radio Analyst Daniel Jeremiah, believe Adderley is a perfect fit for what the Bradley looks for in a free safety.

“There are some guys who are just a perfect match,” Jeremiah said. “And he’s someone I think is just a perfect match with the Chargers. I think they were a little bit fortunate that he wasn’t totally healthy heading into the spring. He had that little hammy at his Pro Day where he didn’t run as fast as he should have. He plays so fast, so I think if he was healthy in the spring, there’s no chance that he makes it to them in the second round. But to get a player like that who so perfectly marries up to what Derwin James does, I tweeted it out at one point in time that I don’t think you can go into a lab and create a better complementary player to Derwin James than (Adderley). So it’s going to be fun to watch them. Really, a first-year player and a second-year player; these guys are going to get a chance to grow together.”

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