Tyron Johnson, WR
Tyron Johnson has unquestionably been the standout of Chargers training camp so far. Forget the routine 50-yard bombs from Justin Herbert and focus on the intermediate work for a moment. Johnson has, on multiple occasions, shown he is more than the deep threat Jalen Guyton is. Whether it be a diving cradle catch on Day 1 or a back shoulder fade for a touchdown on Day 4, Johnson seems to be able to do anything and everything asked of him.
One of my favorite storylines from last season was Johnson walking into Anthony Lynn’s office and asking to be promoted to the active roster. In return, Johnson burst onto the scene with a 53-yard touchdown and raised the eyebrows of every Chargers fan. And then he caught another 50-yard ball…and another…and another…
But threatening defenses with deep ball speed was only the beginning for the former five-star recruit. The deep threat speed served as the basis for his growth as a route-runner, not the crutch he leaned on to hang on for a roster spot. Within half a season Johnson could take a shallow crosser and turn it upfield for a first down or run a corner route to set up the game-winning kick against the Atlanta Falcons.
Through one week of training camp nothing has changed. Johnson has continued his hot streak right into 2021 and could very quickly replace Mike Williams as an upgraded option in 2022.
Drue Tranquill, LB
Drue Tranquill was first in line to call the plays for the defense as the linebacker most likely to stay on the field in passing situations.
Or, so we thought.
Through one week of practice, Kenneth Murray has been the primary linebacker. This is understandable, as at worst he was the other middle linebacker next to Tranquill anyway and a first-round pick who did not have a season-ending injury. The surprise has been Kyzir White, who has both excelled in training camp and taken significant reps with the first team. If reps were the only measure of depth chart sorting the former Notre Dame linebacker would be third.
However, it is worth noting a separate but possibly related situation: Bryan Bulaga has taken about half the starting reps at right tackle while Trey Pipkins takes the other. The Chargers appear to be managing Bulaga’s workload heading into the veteran’s mid thirties, a smart approach allowing them to also evaluate Pipkins. It is very possible Tranquill is limited in the same way Bulaga is. Both are not limited by injury, but Brandon Staley has emphasized getting his team healthy to Week 1 and beyond.
It is worth noting Tranquill’s reps on special teams as well (White also has taken reps on special teams). Though working on special teams often points to a backup role, I believe the rotation of White and Tranquill will allow the each to contribute more on punt coverage while still contributing significant and effective snaps on defense. Tranquill was effective on special teams in 2019, blocking two punts and notching 11 tackles in his rookie season.
Joe Reed, IDK
Joe Reed was expected to be the team’s kickoff returner and gadget mismatch on offense in 2020. Joe Reed was expected to be the team’s kickoff returner and gadget mismatch on offense in 2021.
Joe Reed has done none of that through the first week of training camp.
Start with the stunner: Reed was not seen taking reps at kick returner. His work as a returner in 2020 was not great by any means, but there are no other options on the roster who have shown they can do any better. Nasir Adderley has been all defense and not taken any reps at kick returner either, so the path to the job should be paved and smooth for Reed. This is worth monitoring moving forward, as it seems unfathomable to have Reed not even take reps at that spot.
The Chargers have so far not utilized Reed as a runner or screen receiver thus far. I previously referenced the San Francisco 49ers averaging 17.3 yards per carry on reverses in 2019, a Deebo Samuel special Reed could imitate better than any other receiver on the roster. Perhaps this is a bit further into their playbook than they could get into Week 1.
Asante Samuel Jr., CB
Asante Samuel Jr. was the fan-favorite heading into the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, so imagine the joy in our hearts when we heard his name called just a day after Rashawn Slater fell to them in Round 1. Now imagine the surprise when fans heard former UDFA Brandon Facyson was starting over him.
Look, players have to earn their spot unless they are first-round picks like Slater. Adderley was another fan-favorite who slowly worked in as Rayshawn Jenkins started. Uchenna Nwosu had to wait behind Melvin Ingram. This is not something new.
However, I am a little surprised by Samuel Jr.’s usage, though I am not alarmed in any way. He has been primarily a slot corner so far, which would make sense given his size and the coaching staff likely not wanting to dump too much on his plate too quickly. It is just surprising considering his success at outside corner in college and the staff talking about Samuel Jr. playing slot, outside, and safety.
Nothing to worry about just yet, and frankly even if all he becomes is a really good slot corner the Chargers are in good shape. They need an option post-Harris Jr. in 2022, and perhaps that will be the year Samuel Jr. locks down a starting job and rotates more at different defensive positions.
Justin Herbert, QB
Justin Herbert was a bit 50-50 on throws throughout training camp. Some incredible deep throws and good work in the intermediate game was also followed by awkward misses on out routes or throwing the ball way too hard at receivers on slants.
One glaring problem has been the high-volume but low-completion connection with Mike Williams. By my count, Williams has four receptions on 10 targets through the first week of training camp. Nowhere was the issue on display more than Saturday practice. On one instance it appeared as if Herbert expected Williams to run a post in the end zone (and the defense did look vulnerable there) but he ran a slot fade instead.
On the plus side, Herbert was build with a cannon of an arm that must run on Oreos and cocaine to launch a football as far and as effortlessly as it does. He has also done a fantastic job finding all of the tight ends, particularly Jared Cook.
Chris Harris Jr., DB
Of the players who are projected to benefit from a scheme change, Chris Harris Jr. might make the biggest jump from 2020. It was not a great year for the veteran corner, especially true once the injuries hit.
I do not necessarily think the defensive scheme will suit him better as much as I think working with Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill will make him more comfortable and effective. So far, no player on defense has moved around as much as Harris Jr., lining up as the slot or outside corner on one play and the deep safety the next. The movement in the defense is as advertised.
Jared Cook, TE
If it were not for Johnson, Jared Cook would be considered Herbert’s No. 1 target through the first week of training camp. The connection is both surprising and expected. On the one hand, it should have taken more time for a young quarterback to connect with an older free agent tight end he just met. On the other, no one knows Cook more than offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, so it is only natural the playbook has featured him early and often.
The volume of targets has been astonishing, as has his nimble footwork and yards after the catch ability. Age is just a number for No. 97, and it looks like another career resurgence is on the way for the former Saint.
Josh Palmer, WR
When you tried out for high school in football in the summer, you (hopefully) did one thing: Finish the play. As a receiver you are taught to catch the ball, turn upfield, and finish the play even when no defense is practicing opposite you.
Josh Palmer has the work ethic of an undrafted free agent whose life depends on him making the football team. As a third-round pick, he is in no danger of missing the roster this season. But he works like he is, which is more than I can say for a certain No. 7 overall pick making nearly $16 million this season.
If Palmer catches a ball in drills he runs upfield for another 15-20 yards. If he lines up for footwork drills he cuts and moves faster and more efficiently than any other receiver not named Keenan Allen. The payoff: Two fantastic grabs in Saturday practice, one of them a toe-tapping catch off a corner route and another off a deep crosser. He looks clean, he looks poised, and he is going to be a great receiver in this league when his time comes.
Breiden Fehoko, NT
The Chargers needed another zero technique behind Linval Joseph, but it was always possible Staley opted to go the route of leaner pass-rushing three technique instead. If Breiden Fehoko were cut in favor of keeping Cortez Broughton it would not have surprised me.
Well, hold onto your haka, because Fehoko is playing like he wants to stick around for a long time. Having missed a few practices I can only go off a combination of what I hear and see, but to my knowledge Fehoko has pressured the quarterback consistently and notched multiple sacks thus far, including two on Saturday.
The RB Rotation
After Austin Ekeler is a group of unknown or unreliable players. Justin Jackson is by far the better back of the four but is unable to stay on the field, Joshua Kelley has one year of up and down play to his name, Larry Rountree has never played in the NFL before, and Darius Bradwell was just trying to lose weight last season.
Here is how the RB room shakes out so far, in my opinion:
- Austin Ekeler. The unquestioned starter.
- Justin Jackson. He is the top receiving threat after Ekeler and had two great catches on Saturday.
- Joshua Kelley. He has been more of the 2B to Jackson, and normally rushes the football as opposed to running routes. He is also the starter on special teams.
- Larry Rountree. He has close to as many carries as Kelley. Unfortunately, neither have separated themselves as receivers.
- Darius Bradwell. Unfortunately, the most likely cut candidate.
RB1 and RB2 are sorted out fairly quickly, so the (possibly) final spot will be determined by who best carries the football once the team puts on pads. Kelley and Rountree would serve themselves well to show up in the passing game as well, as neither are particularly well-known for that aspect of their game.