An injury-riddled unit in 2018, the Chargers’ linebacker corps will only be as strong as their health will take them this season.
The Chargers, generally speaking, had better injury luck in 2018 than they did in previous years; unfortunately, that statement didn’t apply to their linebacker corps. Denzel Perryman was having a great year until his knee got blown out against the Raiders in Week 10. Standout rookie Kyzir White made big plays early on, but ended up on injured reserve after just the third week of the season. Jatavis Brown, who stepped into Perryman’s role late in the season, hurt his ankle in the last regular season game against the Broncos and missed the playoffs.
Linebackers were the Chargers’ undoing last postseason. Everyone questioned the Chargers defensive back-heavy sets in the playoffs, particularly when facing the Patriots, but the truth was that it was out of necessity. The team was incredibly thin at linebacker, and tried their best to adapt to the previously mentioned injuries.
They decided to beef up the linebacker group going into this year, with the most notable addition the signing of Thomas Davis, formerly of the Carolina Panthers. Davis, while not in his prime , is still a guy teams can rely on. Since 2012 he’s played 15-16 games in every season but last year, in which he played 12 due to a suspension. While Davis may be older, it’s important to remember most of his success is recent. He had three straight Pro-Bowl seasons from 2015-2017, as well as a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2015. Davis is a great addition to the defense, and though he struggled to stay healthy in the early part of his career, he’s been able to remain so on a consistent basis since.
The other notable addition is Jerry Tillery’s Notre Dame teammate, Drue Tranquill. Drafted in the fourth round, Tranquill is a good body to have in the group, as he is an athletic player who is immediately one of the better coverage linebackers on the Chargers right now. Watching Tillery’s outstanding performance against Stanford is impressive, but equally as eye-drawing in the same game is Tranquill making plays all over the field. It’s clear the Chargers wanted to do get bigger and faster, and they continued to do so with their first Day 3 pick.
Emeke Egbule was the Chargers’ sixth-round pick this year, but it’s unlikely he plays an extensive amount on defense this season. Egbule is a speedy linebacker who lead The American Athletic Conference in passes defended and was fifth nationally in fumble recoveries. He’s nice depth to have if the Chargers lose new starter Uchenna Nwosu to injury.
Davis and Tranquill are two solid additions to the linebacker group, but the success of the defense will come down to the health of the guys who were hurt last year. If they can all stay relatively healthy heading into the postseason, the Chargers will have a legit shot at a championship. But if bodies start piling up on the injured reserve again like with Perryman, Brown, and White last year, it could get ugly fast.
The other player to watch is Nwosu. He made some big plays down the stretch and could really take step up this year with more playing time. Nwosu was an igniter of the Chargers defense at times, but it’s hard to really project where he’s going to be at the moment. As of right now, the Chargers have handed him the starting outside linebacker job with no competition. Can he handle a greater workload while still maintaining his fantastic motor? Last night’s preseason game showed he has carried over his disruptive potential from his rookie season to now.
That’s where the linebackers stand for now. There’s more potential for this group in 2019 than there was in 2018, but so much of it will be determined by health and ability of its linebackers. That’s true for every position, but it’s especially true for linebackers, a position Tom Telesco admitted was nowhere close to adequate enough by the end of the postseason. If no one wants to see the Chargers running out seven corners in the playoffs against the Patriots, it’ll come down to injuries. Grade: B