Why Chargers UDFA James Onwualu will make the 53-man roster

Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images /

Chargers linebacker James Onwualu is one of many undrafted free agents. Will he be able to crack the 53-man roster?

Former Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu wasn’t drafted, but he was in hot pursuit once the 2017 draft ended.

The Los Angeles Chargers wanted him, and he wanted to play for them. According to Chargers.com, 17 teams teams contacted him when the draft ended and offered him a contract, and he picked the team he grew up rooting for.

Had Onwualu participated in the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, he would have ranked in the top five among linebackers in the bench press (24 reps), vertical leap (36 inches) and 60-yard shuttle (11.54 seconds). He did, however, put up disappointing numbers in the 40-yard dash (4.73 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.25 seconds) at Notre Dame’s pro day.

But on the football field, Onwualu knows how to get the job done–and that’s where it counts. NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein believes he has a chance to make an NFL roster.

“A weakside, 4-3 linebacker who has the go-go motor and fearless, attacking spirit that gives him a chance to make a roster as a special teams performer with backup LB ability.”

Unlike a former Chargers linebacker/Notre Dame product, Onwualu is an athlete. In high school, Onwualu went back and forth playing wide receiver, running back and cornerback, as well as returned kicks, according to his bio on Notre Dame’s official website. He played wide receiver as a true freshman for the Fighting Irish before switching to linebacker the next three years.

A defensive captain in his final year at Notre Dame, Onwualu set career highs in total tackles (75), tackles for loss (11.5), pass deflections (five) and forced fumbles (two). He also finished with six sacks over the last two seasons.

Some scouts say he’s a bit undersized (6-foot-1, 232 pounds) to play linebacker, but I believe his athleticism, versatility and smarts will overcome any issues. Plus, there are a couple of Chargers who came in with question marks because of their size (CB Jason Verrett and OLB Jatavis Brown), and they’ve been successful in their short time with the Bolts.

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Why he’ll make the roster: The Chargers have a very good linebacker corps. Brown, Denzel Perryman, Kyle Emanuel, Korey Toomer and Joshua Perry are all a lock to make the roster. There’s a lot of talent there, but starters Perryman and Brown missed time last season due to injury, and having good insurance at this position is a must. Not only that, but all of these guys will be adjusting to a new scheme.

Keeping that in mind, the Chargers desperately need help on special teams. Nick Dzubnar, a three-year pro, played in all 16 games last year. He will likely compete with Onwualu for that spot.

Onwualu reportedly looked impressive during offseason workouts, so look for him to continue to shine during training camp and make the cut as a key special teamer. And if Onwualu thrives there and proves he’s not a liability in coverage and can rush the passer, perhaps Gus Bradley will sprinkle him in early during passing situations.