Los Angeles Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget will begin the season on the sidelines as he serves a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy against substance abuse.
Because of that and the fact that he hasn’t been all that great in recent years, the Chargers were expected by most analysts to select a defensive tackle early in this year’s draft.
Vita Vea and Da’Ron Payne were both popular picks to come to the Chargers in mock drafts, as were guys like Maurice Hurst and Taven Bryan. In the end, the team didn’t take any of them, deciding they couldn’t pass on safety Derwin James, who was still on the board at No. 17.
The Chargers waited until the third round to draft a defensive tackle, grabbing North Carolina State’s Justin Jones. That was a gutsy move for a team knowing that Liuget will miss the first quarter of the season while its other defensive tackle, Brandon Mebane, has likely reached his peak as an NFL player and is one the downside of what he has left to offer.
Over the course of the first four weeks, the Chargers will face some of the league’s best running backs in Kareem Hunt, LeSean McCoy and Todd Gurley.
To begin the season, the Chargers will go with Mebane and either Damion Square or the rookie Jones in the starting lineup. For a defense that was gashed repeatedly in the running game last season, there shouldn’t be a ton of optimism around these choices.
Even when Liuget was in the lineup last season, the team was bad against the run. His return won’t mean a huge upgrade ,either. Instead, the Chargers will have to hope that the combination of Mebane, Square and Jones can win at the point of attack and eat double teams, allowing the athletic linebackers on the team to come up and make plays.
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That was the idea behind drafting Jones. He’s not an overwhelming defender. He’s rarely going to put pressure on the quarterback. His job will be to engage blockers so that guys like Denzel Perryman, Jatavis Brown, Uchenna Nwosu and Kyzir White can come up from their linebacker spot and hit the ball carrier.
We can talk about bad field-goal kicking all we want. We can point to the costly fumble Austin Ekeler had against the Jacksonville Jaguars and we can curse those same Jaguars for not beating the Tennessee Titans last New Year’s Eve as reasons the Chargers didn’t make the playoffs.
But fact is, if the run defense was even a little more stout, the team wouldn’t have had to worry about any of those things.
It will need to be better this year or the Chargers will be home much earlier than they’d like to be at the end of the season.