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Chargers Mailbag: What are the Bolts Top Training Camp Storylines?


Welcome to a pre-training camp edition of the Chargers Mailbag!

Send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go…

What's your top storyline to watch as training camp begins? (Paul via email)

Welcome to camp!

Chargers veterans arrived at Hoag Performance Center this morning and will undergo medical evaluations, meetings and installs before holding their first practice Wednesday morning at Jack Hammett Sports Complex.

There's a buzz around the Bolts, but what is the top storyline around the team?

For me, it's whether or not J.C. Jackson is on the field in the early stages of camp.

The Bolts cornerback spent the last seven-plus months rehabbing from a serious knee injury but said in mid-June that he was in a great spot in his recovery.

If Jackson is at full health for the regular season and can also return to the Pro-Bowl form that made him one of the league's top cornerbacks, the Chargers secondary could be on the top units on the roster.

Jackson's presence as a No. 1 lockdown corner would mean plenty of depth in a group that also features Michael Davis, Asante Samuel, Jr. and Ja'Sir Taylor.

If Jackson plays like his old self, expect Davis to occupy the other outside cornerback spot while Samuel and Taylor battle for playing time in the slot.

The Bolts will surely need all four corners at some point in the year and having as much depth and talent as possible will ensure a strong group.

Other storylines I'm interested to follow are the pairing of Kellen Moore and Justin Herbert, wide receiver depth, Eric Kendricks' impact on the defense and the looming potential of Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa together again.

Who's the backup for the role Derwin James plays on defense? Does rookie Daiyan Henley possess the capabilities of playing in the box near line of scrimmage? His size is very similar to Derwin and he played safety in college. It seems he has good cover skills, and the speed, tenacity and potential to play like Derwin. Would love to hear your thoughts. (Herb via email)

A great two-part question here from Herb.

The first, which centers around Derwin, doesn't really have an answer.

And not because there aren't depth players in the secondary. But it's mostly because Derwin is a one-of-a-kind player who brings something to the Chargers defense that nobody else can.

He can line up in as many as a half-dozen spots and you can bet Derwin and Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley are always scheming up different ways to maximize James' rare skillset.

So yes, while someone could replace James at deep safety and another player could fill his role in the slot and another could blitz off the edge, nobody else can do them all in the same game.

Moving on to Henley, there's no doubt the Bolts are high on the third-round pick.

Here's what Chargers linebackers coach Jeff Howard said about him when we chatted earlier this offseason:

"I was very high on Daiyan, he was one of my favorite linebackers in the draft and really surprised that he was available when we drafted him," Howard said. "The things that stand out with me when I watch his tape is how physical he was, that was the first thing that came up.

"I think he goes out of his way to play with the physical mentality and then when you see his movement skills, I'm just like, 'This guys doesn't really move like a linebacker,'" Howard added. "His history is he was a former receiver, played high school quarterback, and you can kind of see that in his moving skills so that was really intriguing."

On paper, yes, Henley's possesses a skillset that has similarities to James. It's certainly not the same, but there are same elements.

But if we're looking at the impact Henley can make right away, that's likely going to come on special teams. He's probably going to be on every special teams phase and will be a key cog for those units.

I do think Henley can develop into a starting linebacker down the road but perhaps his initial impact comes on special teams.

I'm not in that stat prediction business so you won't find specific numbers here.

But what I will say is that Johnston will surely have a chance to make a big impact on the Bolts offense as a rookie.

To start, every team usually needs multiple receivers to step up over the course of a season. Rarely does one player shoulder the load for all 17 games.

Johnston is in a great spot by being able to learn from Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and even Joshua Palmer, all while developing at his own pace.

The Bolts aren't going to ask him to be WR1 right away and Johnston won't need to be that guy either.

He can carve out his own role — think short passes with an emphasis on yards after the catch — with the occasional deep shot down the field.

In order to keep up with a plethora of great AFC offenses, the Bolts are going to need to score points. The quickest way to do that is by getting the ball down the field through the air.

Expect Johnston to be a key wide receiver this season and make an impact, perhaps even moreso that what his rookie numbers end up being.

They're involved in pretty much all aspects of the organization, but the scope varies based on a particular area.

That could be in-game situations, analyzing draft prospects or taking a deep dive into how certain trends have affected the league over the past number of years.

You are correct in that every team uses this department differently, but the Chargers have a pretty good group by all accounts.

Staley even gave them a shoutout late in the 2022 season after a win over the Titans. If you remember, the Chargers wisely and strategically used their timeouts in order to save the clock even though Tennessee tied the game.

Although the Chargers began their next drive with no timeouts, they had 44 seconds to work with because they used up all their timeouts. The Bolts obviously went down and kicked the game-winning field goal, an outcome that might not have happen in regulation had the Titans used up the entire clock.

Here's what Staley said about analytics back then:

"I think that your mindset has to go from defensive coordinator to head coach in that sequence. You know that you're trying to get them stopped, for sure, managing the two-minute the best that you can, but then, you're also having to manage the potential two-minute drill for your offense at the same time. I have a great team around me [Director of Football Research] Aditya Krishnan and [Pass Game Specialist] Tom Arth are up in the box helping me. They do such a fantastic job."

Krishnan is a crucial member of the department and is one of the most respected people in the building.

And, like I mentioned earlier, he helps the entire organization throughout the calendar year in finding an edge with data and numbers.

That is their main objective, plain and simple.

Now, there's a lot of layers involved because the sports performance staff works hand in hand with the athletic training staff plus nutrition, position coaches and others to ensure players are at their best on game day.

If you missed it, I actually chatted with the Chargers Sports Performance Staff earlier this offseason. You can find that conversation here.

They gave great insight to how they do their jobs and how they go about trying to carry out that main goal from above.

A good question here to close us out.

We'll have to see if there's a different approach in that area, especially given the emphasis the teams has placed on defending the run —particularly to the outside — in 2023.

One thing to keep in mind is that the first few days of camp aren't in pads and are a bit of a ramp up session, so to speak. So even though there won't be live tackling, defenders at all levels can focus on their techniques and fundamentals as camp opens.

A final note about the run defense before we wrap up here, and I guess this is a bit of a prediction on my end…

But I fully expect Eric Kendricks to play a big part in that aspect of the defense this year and help the overall unit be better against teams on the ground.

That will do it for this edition of the Mailbag. Keep it locked to for plenty of in-depth camp coverage over the next few weeks.

As always, you can find me on Twitter at @EricLSmith and submit your questions for the Chargers Mailbag.

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