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Not Your Average Rookie: Inside Tuli Tuipulotu's Strong 1st NFL Season

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Tuli Tuipulotu wasn't expecting too much of a major role during his rookie season.

After all, even though he was the Chargers second-round pick, the outside linebacker entered the year behind All-Pro veterans such as Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.

The plan was for Tuipulotu to get a chance to learn from some of the best in the game while incorporating himself into the league as a first-year player.

But injuries struck the Bolts defense, especially at outside linebacker, as Tuipulotu went from a rookie learning behind vets to someone who has been relied upon heavily of late.

"That gave me a good taste of the league," Tuipulotu said about stepping up in his rookie year due to injuries. "When somebody goes down, somebody's coming up.

"I think it just gave me a good taste of what the league is and what could happen," Tuipulotu added.

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The 54th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft enters the Bolts season finale having played in all 16 games with 10 starts. He's also played the seventh-most defensive snaps of any player in powder blue.

He's notched 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, while his eight tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hits rank second only behind Mack on the team.

Tuipulotu's 47 total pressures are also second-most among rookie edge rushers that have played at least 20 percent of the pass rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Just as impressive as his pass rushing talent was his performance as a run defender, where Tuipulotu has shined among rookies in that department.

According to PFF, Tuipulotu is the highest-graded rookie (87.6), has the most tackles against the run (33) and has the most run stops (25) among rookie edge rushers that have played 20 percent of run defense snaps.

Tuipulotu said his rookie season flew by, but noted he believes he could've played even better despite his early success in the NFL.

"It went by so fast," Tuipulotu said. "Everybody was telling me about how, 'It's a long season'. But I don't know, it felt like it went by real fast."

"I think I exceeded my expectations, but I didn't play as well as I could've played," Tuipulotu later added. "I didn't think I was going to play as much this year than I have, but I also think I could've played way better than what I put out this year."

The drive to continue to get better is part of Tuipulotu's hardworking and quiet demeanor that made an impression on the team from the jump.

And it's part of the reason Chargers Interim Head Coach Giff Smith, who spent a lot of time with Tuipulotu when he was the outside linebackers coach earlier in the year, believes this is just the surface of what Tuipulotu can do.

"I think the impressive thing is how well his football knowledge is," Smith said about Tuipulotu earlier in the week. "He's a very smart player. Obviously, he's tough, he's gifted, all that, but his football IQ is really, really high. I think he's gotten better every week.

"I told him when the season started, I didn't see him as a rookie," Giff added. "He didn't carry himself as a rookie. I think he's performed like a starter in the NFL. I think the future's bright for Tuli, I really do."

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Fellow Chargers players also echoed the sentiment throughout the year, as his approach as a young rookie was one that helped him grow in his first year.

"I love Tuli. I think he does everything right, everything you can ask for from a rookie and more," Bosa said about Tuipulotu in late September. "Everything you can ask for from any player honestly. He's just great, he's in his book, he knows everything.

"He just knows his stuff really well, you can plug him in any position and he's going to do his job," Bosa added. "At the same time, he just really wants to learn and get better which, I've said this before, he's like a sponge and he just practices his craft really hard every single day really consistently and I think he's getting better fast."

Mack also gushed about Tuipulotu's progression earlier this season.

"Tuli is a baller, man. He's a gamer," Mack said. "When the lights cut on, he's ready to go. And that's all we can ask for from a guy that just turned 21 [in September]. He's going out there and playing grown man football."

Tuipulotu walked into a room with tons of NFL experience — and he was able to soak it all in as they paved the way.

To be able to learn from a group that like the one holds a ton of value and helped Tuipulotu in his eventful rookie season.

"I think we had a great group. I think we had some vets who paved the way and showed us the way," Tuipulotu said about the veterans. "Coming into the league I heard a lot of stuff about vets, some of them might treat you like [crap], but over here it was nothing like that.

"It was love all the time. I appreciate all of them," Tuipulotu added. "Joey, K-Mack, Chris [Rumph II], Justin [Hollins], all of them. It's been good."

And from those veterans and during his first experience in the NFL, one of the biggest things he learned from them was to remain consistent in everything you do.

"Trying to be consistent in everything, like in routines," Tuipulotu said. "In that case the season is a long season trying to stay on top of everything. I think that's something I had to learn."

"I think it sets a solid foundation," Tuipulotu later added. "I just have to keep building from here. I don't think there's much more to it, just keep working."

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Tuipulotu is now approaching his first full NFL offseason. After having to go through the Combine and other pre-draft duties last year, he's excited about a more low-key spring.

Even if his mind remains on the Sunday's season finale against the Chiefs.

"I'm not really thinking about the offseason yet, we got one more game left, but I'm excited to see," Tuipulotu said. "I know a lot of people say after the season to take some time off, reset.

"I don't know but I'm excited," Tuipulotu added. "But just take care of this week and when the offseason comes, the offseason comes."

But what Tuipulotu does know is when he steps onto the training camp grounds in Year 2, he hopes to be a more disruptive version of himself on the gridiron.

And, just like he showed in his rookie season, whatever role that may be, he'll be ready.

"I feel like I want to be a more impactful player and I want to help the team more and do whatever I can to help the team," Tuipulotu said. "I've got to take care of the stuff in the offseason so I can come back better and contribute."

Tuipulotu later added: "Just be prepared for anything."

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