How Five Roster Bubble Players Stand Out and Earn a Spot with the Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers start training camp this week with few spots up for grabs as roster bubble players fight for their right to make the final cut. Here is how five of those players have a shot to keep their job or earn a spot.

Joe Reed, WR/KR

Of each of the roster bubble players referenced in this article, Joe Reed may have the most variable odds of making the final 53. In an ideal world the former fifth-round pick is a versatile offensive chess piece whose sole responsibility is to create headaches and mismatches for opposing defenses. In 2020 Anthony Lynn went as far as to compare Reed’s potential role to that of Percy Harvin, who has amassed 4,953 yards from scrimmage in his career.

Last season could not have been more of a different story for Reed, who wound up touching the ball just five times on offense. The cause is a three-parter:

  1. The emergence of Tyron Johnson and Jalen Guyton (particularly the former) cut into Reed’s snap counts on offense.
  2. The HC/OC combo of Anthony Lynn and Shane Steichen was, shall we say, less than creative.
  3. Reed may not have fully grasped the playbook.

The third point was somewhat speculative last season and unfortunately I cannot find the exact Lynn quote referencing Reed struggling with the plays. However, it is notable the only comment new OC Joe Lombardi has made so far regarding Reed is he is happy Reed is lining up in the right spots…and that was it.

Fortunately for Reed, the Chargers look to be adopting the San Francisco 49ers’ run game. During their run at the Super Bowl in 2019, the 49ers averaged 17.3 yards per attempt on reverses or end arounds. This was a Deebo Samuel special, and the Chargers could look to implement Reed in a similar way. Each of the three projected starters at wide receiver has a man behind them who can imitate (albeit to a lesser extent) their traits: Keenan Allen has KJ Hill, Mike Williams has Josh Palmer, and Tyron Johnson has Jalen Guyton. There is no player like Reed, who has the capacity to be a Samuel-like runner of the football in a way his counterparts do not. In fact, last offseason it was reported Reed was taking snaps out of the backfield and working with the running back group.

On limited snaps, Reed ran the football five times for 29 yards and scored one touchdown in 2020. While an average of 5.8 yards per carry is certainly no 17.3 yards per attempt, it does hint at an efficient gadget-type role for Reed asking desperately to be explored by the new coaching staff.

The other and most obvious route for Reed to make the roster is at kick returner. Based on the lack of moves thus far, it appears as if the Chargers are comfortable with him taking that responsibility this season. His toughest competition is Nasir Adderley, but the third-year safety should be reserved for his full-time role in a complex defense as the team can ill-afford to lose him on a special teams play.

Reed being considered a roster bubble player is a debate between expectations and reality. For all the 2020 offseason hype the rookie simply did not contribute much last season. Chargers fans would love nothing more than to see Reed get more involved, but at some point we need to consider who the player might be versus who we want them to be. And, for what it is worth, Daniel Popper (The Athletic) had Reed not making the roster in his most recent article.

Stephen Anderson, TE

In our most recent interview with the tight end, Stephen Anderson referenced opportunity as the No. 1 reason he was finally able to break out to close the season. With Hunter Henry out, Anderson grabbed seven passes for 100 yards over the final two games of the year.

Three tight ends now stand in the way of those opportunities once again, only this time it is veteran free agent Jared Cook, second-year Charger Donald Parham, and the third-round rookie draft pick Tre’ McKitty. How does Anderson stand out in a crowded room?

The easy answer: Yards after the catch per reception. Here is how the stat broke down last season:

  • Stephen Anderson: 10.1
  • Donald Parham: 5.8
  • Hunter Henry: 4.0
  • Jared Cook: 3.1

Believe it or not, Anderson was No. 1 in the NFL last season (min. 10 targets) in yards after the catch per reception. While eight receptions highlights more possibility than significant trend, it should be noteworthy for an organization incorporating statistics and analysis into its play-calling and roster building.

The Green Bay Packers have one of the best offenses in the NFL, and one of their more multiple offensive concepts is Mesh. While the basic concept is fairly simple, the Packers go above and beyond to run more variations out of the concept than anyone else in the league. The key to identifying the concept is the shallow crossing route run by two players nearly intersecting three yards off the line of scrimmage. In a recent video I suggested this was a great concept for two players: Mike Williams, who nearly took a shallow crosser to the house against the Packers in 2019, and Anderson, the NFL’s leader in yards after the catch per reception.

Much like the case for Reed, Anderson has a little something the other tight ends either do not have or have not shown yet. Should the Chargers look to implement an offensive passing scheme allowing their players to catch the ball in space and create plays, Anderson could very well be the biggest beneficiary.

Ben DeLuca, DB

To be quite honest, this safety group is one injury away from being a disaster. There is not a single safety on this roster fans can expect to be both very good and available for 17 games.

Ben DeLuca is neither an experienced NFL player nor a college prospect with tantalizing athletic traits, but what he lacks in RAS score he more than makes up for on the stat sheet. The production is notable, as are the countless awards he has won:

  • All-time school leader in tackles, forced fumbles, and PBUs.
  • Two-year co-captain
  • Five years on the Academic Honor Roll
  • PFF’s 2018 and 2020 First-Team All-Conference

The team needs more living and breathing bodies at safety, particularly those who are versatile enough to fill in at different spots. Per Pro Football Focus, DeLuca logged 186 box safety snaps, 63 snaps at slot or wide corner, and 121 snaps at free safety.

If he manages to demonstrate a knack for special teams, DeLuca will prove a more valuable player than the other UDFA signings since this defense is far more dependent on its defensive backs than its linebackers.

Amen Ogbongbemiga, LB

The Chargers had a three-year period where one of their special teams players led the NFL in special teams tackles. Last year, in a historically awful unit, the highest-ranked Chargers player was Brandon Facyson tied for 30th. The departure of consistent special teams contributors over multiple offseasons left the team bereft of talent.

The Staley regime appears to be reversing this trend with the signing of Ryan Smith and the drafting of players like Nick Niemann. Another name catching the eye of new special teams coordinator Derius Swinton: LB Amen Ogbongbemiga.

Ogbongbemiga has, for what it is worth, the second-biggest Chargers UDFA contract behind DT Jerry Goldwire. Whether the size of UDFA contracts at all predicts a roster spot is unknown, but there is your Chargers trivia Jeopardy answer for the day.

I have a difficult time placing Ogbongbemiga over DeLuca for a final roster spot on this roster with this coach. The Chargers have a solid rotation of four middle linebackers in a defense where only two will be featured at one time, if not just one as Staley runs some format of a 3-3-5. I see how the athletic and solid coverage linebacker Nick Niemann fits this team as a defender and special teams player, but I am unable to say the same for what I consider a run-stopping specialist in Ogbongbemiga.

There is really only one path to making the roster for Ogbongbemiga: Play like an animal on special teams.

Justin Jackson, RB

Surprised? I am as well, but it is worth mentioning Justin Jackson as a roster bubble player considering his injury history and the back-to-back selections of running backs in two separate drafts. This team may not opt to carry four running backs, and in Daniel Popper’s most recent article he did not have Jackson making the final roster. That is not my personal preference, but since he brought it up we can explore this further.

Here is how the running backs behind Austin Ekeler stacked up last season, with the No. 1 back in each category bolded:

RBYards After Contact per AttemptMissed Tackles Forced per AttemptBreakaway PercentageYards per Route RunElusiveness Rating
Justin Jackson2.88.23740.71.9273.9
Joshua Kelley2.30.11727.41.1427.4
Kalen Ballage2.46.1545.61.1641.0

No, that is (hopefully) not an error: Jackson was far and away the best back of the RB2s from last season. Heading into this year nothing has changed, even with the addition of sixth-round pick Larry Rountree.

Health is key, but to stand out Jackson should lean into his skills as a receiving back to ensure himself a roster spot. Neither Kelley nor Rountree were known receiving threats coming out of college, and as of last season Jackson was very clearly a more dynamic receiving threat than Kelley. Compared to the rookie fourth-round pick, Jackson had the edge in receiving yards, yards per reception, yards after the catch per reception, yards per route run, missed tackles forced as a receiver, and passer rating when targeted, all on just one more target than Kelley.

Jackson, in my opinion, is in no danger of being cut if he stays healthy. Until Kelley and Rountree prove their worth over the course of the preseason and regular season, Jackson should be considered the RB2.

3 thoughts on “How Five Roster Bubble Players Stand Out and Earn a Spot with the Chargers

      1. That could complicate things but if he’s vaccinated (I believe he is) he could return very quickly with two negative tests I think.

        Like

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