As we turn the page to April, AKA draft month in the NFL, we got a few of the Chargers' beat writers together to discuss their views on how the Bolts attacked the first, main wave of free agency.
Without further ado, here's what Daniel Popper (The Athletic), Jeff Miller (Los Angeles Times), Gilbert Manzano (Southern California News Group), and Joe Reedy (Associated Press) had to say:
How did the Chargers defense get better with Khalil Mack?
Miller: The defense got a lot better, and I think it's exactly what we all thought was gonna happen. Brandon Staley talked about defensive line and cornerbacks, and they fixed the defensive line and got a really good cornerback. They look a lot better, and I think the main thing from the Chargers perspective if you're a fan of this team, is these are guys who played and want to "play Staley's way;" his way he likes to play. He's talked about that a lot. In the case of [J.C.] Jackson and Mack, we know those guys are gonna play the way he wants to play, and other guys are gonna play the same way. We're seeing Staley mold this defense the way he wants it to be which is gonna look a lot different than it looked like last year.
Popper: [Mack] paring up with a guy [Staley] who knows him really well, has familiarity with the scheme, and on top of that, is rushing opposite Joey Bosa. So now, you have two of maybe the top-five or top-seven edge rushers in the league rushing on opposite sides. That's obviously gonna impact how they rush the quarterback. But Khalil Mack is also an excellent run defender, and this team was really poor defending the run last season. I think Khalil Mack is gonna elevate the run defense as a whole because he's a premium, elite player.
Manzano: Brandon Staley's defensive scheme is complex but the goal is to be aggressive and create more opportunities for quarterback Justin Herbert and the Chargers' offense. Now the Chargers have another playmaker in Mack who excels in applying pressure on opposing quarterbacks while also creating takeaways with strip sacks. Joey Bosa is also an expert in both areas, giving the Chargers one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. Mack's presence could be the key for Staley's defensive scheme taking flight in 2022.
Reedy: It gives opposing offensive coordinators and head coaches a bigger migraine, because they no longer can say "If we shut down Joey Bosa, we shut down the Chargers pass rush". Now they have pass rushers on both sides that are going to give left and right tackles matchup problems. If Bosa and Mack don't combine for at least 23 sacks this upcoming season, it will be a disappointment. Bosa had 12.5 sacks and Melvin Ingram had 10.5 in 2017, so it can be done. Mack has also shown he is solid against the run too, which will definitely help.
How do guys like Sebastian Joseph Day – including his familiarity with Staley's scheme – and Austin Johnson benefit the run defense?
Popper: Sebastian Joseph-Day is very familiar with how Brandon Staley wants to play defense and with how he wants to fit the run. I think that's really important. Last year, some of the defensive linemen who were holdovers really struggled to sort of acclimate to the new scheme to the point where Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill effectively tore down the entire run defense structure during the bye week and revamped it, which is why you saw some improvement. But now, you're bringing in a guy who knows exactly what Brandon Staley wants and has played his best football in this specific scheme and I think that's gonna help the whole line.
Manzano: Staley mentioned that the Mack trade was a smart one because he used to coach Mack in Chicago and he knew what he was getting. The same can be said about the Joseph-Day signing because Staley knows he fits the system from their one year together with the Rams. Last year, the Chargers didn't have enough players who were familiar with Staley's complex scheme and now they have veterans who can help the inexperienced players adapt quicker. Austin Johnson is new to the scheme, but he and Joseph-Day have the size and versatility that the Chargers' interior defensive line lacked last season. Staley might find himself with many successful defensive line combinations with the 6-foot-4, 310-pound newcomers.
Reedy: Joseph-Day and Johnson ranked in the Top 25 according to PFF on forcing the opposing offense into unsuccessful run plays (under the needed yards on certain downs). Considering that 51.7% of runs allowed by the Chargers last season went for four yards or more, which was third-worst in the league, they need to do a better job of holding teams under that in order to force longer yardage situations on second and third down, which should help with the addition of both players and then open up the pass rush on third down.
How does J.C. Jackson's presence help Derwin James and other guys in the secondary?
Miller: Staley said it the other day with Jackson that, 'It helps the depth of our entire secondary.' You're bringing in a guy who's now the No. 1. That's what they lacked last year, that depth. You're bringing in a guy who's an elite man-defender. The whole secondary, it's gonna help out everybody … They've got someone now who's in the spot to be the star and they all can play off of that and it's gonna help all of them. But the more help, the more playmakers back there with Derwin, it's just gonna make him better, it's just how football works.
Popper: That's the word – "playmakers." The more playmakers you have, the more it takes some of the onus off Derwin James to be that playmaker. And you just need to make plays, you need to come up with the ball, you need to come up with turnovers. They have guys now in all levels of the defense who can go get the football and that's what you need, you need playmakers on all levels of your defense and that's what this entire offseason strategy was about.
Manzano: Doing less could turn out to be more for Derwin James, who was playing at least five roles and calling the defense last year. J.C. Jackson's arrival gives the Chargers the option of moving Asante Samuel Jr. to slot cornerback, one of James' roles because that position lacked consistency. Samuel might be better suited to play on the inside, allowing James to roam closer to the line of scrimmage. Jackson will provide depth and dependability if he's able to contain No. 1 wide receivers the way he did for the New England Patriots the past few seasons. James had his monster rookie season in 2018 because he was roaming free as a game-wrecker.
Reedy: Jackson will be on the top receiver, which should take pressure off Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr. That also allows James to help out in other areas.
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