Three Chargers Players Generating Buzz This Offseason

I rarely write here these days, but with all the information flying around during free agency and pre-draft I had to do a brain dump and share some nuggets with you guys. I initially just wanted to talk about one player (first on this list) but found more to discuss along the way. Here are three players I have heard some positive things about so far this offseason:

Amen Ogbongbemiga, LB

Admittedly, I found it strange when the Chargers opted to give undrafted free agent Amen Ogbongbemiga the nod over sixth-round pick Nick Niemann as early and often as they did during training camp. The team drafted the latter, and he came with far more athletic upside (9.9 RAS Score) than the former (5.11 RAS Score). When second-year linebacker Kenneth Murray went down at the public team scrimmage, it was Ogbongbemiga who got the first nod as LB4 while Niemann rotated with the next unit.

Preseason games gave Niemann the chance to pull away and solidify his spot as LB4. Based on how the two performed, I was very confident the rookie draft pick had the edge heading into the regular season:

StatNick NiemannAmen Ogbongbemiga
Run Stops102
2021 NFL Preseason Snaps and Stats, per Pro Football Focus

I saw those numbers, his draft status, and his RAS score and figured the rookie from Iowa was going to be LB4 on the team. I was wrong. Ogbongbemiga went on to play nearly twice as many snaps as Niemann during the regular season. Neither logged significant starting snaps, but Ogbongbemiga was far more productive in his rotation with two pressures, one sack, 16 tackles, and four run stops.

Ogbongbemiga’s stock continues to rise heading into his second season. As of writing this, Kyzir White has not re-signed with the team and is a long shot to return. There is a spot on the team for Ogbongbemiga to develop and eventually overtake Drue Tranquill for LB2 either this season or when Tranquill inevitably departs.

If anyone on this list has true, legitimate buzz that I buy, it’s Ogbongbemiga. I have had three current or former teammates of his bring up his name unprompted, one of them predicting he will be a “household name” in this league. Daniel Popper (The Athletic) said in a recent interview with Steven Haglund the team believes Ogbongbemiga can be a starter in this league. Watch for him to take a step forward and potentially develop into a co-starter alongside Murray over the next two seasons.

Breiden Fehoko, NT

A prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft the Chargers have met with suggested the team loves Breiden Fehoko. Yes, I hear you already: What was the team supposed to say?

Still, it is nice to hear the former UDFA out of LSU get some love after the up-and-down journey he’s had so far:

  • 2020: Signs as UDFA
  • September 5th, 2020: Cut
  • September 6th, 2020: Added to the practice squad
  • November 28th and December 5th, 2020: Elevated from the practice squad
  • January 5th, 2021: Signed reserve/future contract
  • August 31st, 2021: Cut
  • September 1st, 2021: Added to the practice squad
  • October 4th and October 17th: Elevated from the practice squad
  • November 17th: Signed to the active roster

Such is the life of an undrafted free agent, unless your name is Austin Ekeler.

The Chargers’ roster manipulation along the interior last year was a disaster. Offseason standout and Tom Telesco draft pick Cortez Broughton was cut in favor of Rams DT Eric Banks. Banks lasted 29 days. Forrest Merrill was the bubble IDL kept on the initial 53-man roster, kept in favor of Fehoko and DT/DE hybrid Joe Gaziano despite being less productive in the preseason than either of those two. Merrill was cut, only to be added to the practice squad and elevated ahead of Fehoko.

Everything changed for Fehoko when Justin Jones went down with an injury. The Chargers asked him to drop weight and play everything from 0-5T along the defensive line (55 A-gap, 53 B-gap, and 16 OVT snaps, per PFF). It paid off.

The Chargers were dying for help against the run after fielding one of the worst run defense units in the league to open the season. On the very first defensive play of Sunday Night Football, Fehoko dropped Najee Harris for a minimal gain. The tone was set, the Chargers were energized, and a band of misfit defensive tackles held up better against the run than the favored Jerry Tillery had all season.

Fehoko finished the season with 13 tackles and 10 run stops in 65 run defense snaps. The nose tackle nobody had the urgency to play finished the season with a run stop rate 3.4 times higher than the first rounder being forced onto the field. His run stop rate of 16.1 led every defender in the NFL (min. 65 run defense snaps) in 2021. That number would have topped any defender at any position the past three seasons. What’s more, the 300-lb interior defensive lineman was called upon to block as the wing on kickoff return after his teammates tested positive for COVID-19. He was dominant.

The Chargers have gone all in on a defensive overhaul, including signing Sebastian Joseph-Day to start ahead of Fehoko. As far as I am concerned they can stop the search for a better nose tackle room right there. Joseph-Day and Fehoko were second and first in 2021 run stop rate, respectively. I would roll with that, personally.

***In the middle of writing this the Chargers re-signed Christian Covington, who can also play all over the defensive line. Given only 6.5 percent of his snaps were logged in the A-gap, I would imagine this puts Gaziano in more danger than Fehoko. That said, Covington was initially going to be NT2 behind Linval Joseph last year. The Chargers wanted three DTs and two NTs last year but could open up a sixth spot this year for improved roster management post-COVID protocols.***

Trey Pipkins, OT

Once again, I hear you. We have heard this song and dance before. We have seen the team go elsewhere in the draft. We have seen Trey Pipkins struggle on the football field. But, if someone tells me the team is high on him, I have to mention it.

Because for the first time…I think I might believe them.

Pipkins’ 2021 preseason was some unholy dumpster fire of a performance. In his third season as a pro facing backup players, the former Sioux Falls prospect allowed nine pressures and three sacks while picking up three penalties in just three games. I thought only blackmail or Telesco’s arrogance would keep him on the 53-man roster. Whatever the case, he stuck, but Storm Norton was the OT3 and next in line when Bryan Bulaga went down about 11 seconds after the national anthem.

Pipkins made occasional appearances as an extra tackle and still struggled. A penalty vs Kansas City here, being tossed 15 yards to his left against Baltimore there, and I was sure this was it for him as an NFL player.

Then a miracle happened: Pipkins was called upon to start at left tackle and right tackle against the Chiefs and Broncos, respectively, and was REALLY good. In 76 pass-blocking snaps across two games Pipkins allowed only three pressures. Justin Herbert was not touched when Pipkins played left tackle and he was not touched when Pipkins played right tackle. No. 79 dominated the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football and paved the way for an excellent rushing attack.

Third-round picks should be viewed as three-year projections (usually), and Pipkins used the last two games of his third year to show he belonged in the league as a swing tackle and spot starter. Frank Smith and Shaun Sarrett pulled off a miracle here and likely saved Pipkins’ career in this league.

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