Is Kenneth Murray finally primed for a breakout on the Chargers?

Can the 2023 season finally be the year when we see the best of Kenneth Murray? It has been a long time waiting for everyone associated with the Chargers but it feels like the former-first-round pick is primed for a breakout.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Los Angeles Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Los Angeles Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars / Douglas P. DeFelice/GettyImages

As Chargers fans it feels like when trying to summon positive memories of Kenneth Murray we only really have the 2020 game against the Patriots to hang on to.

Murray had a team-high 13 tackles in the game. He also registered his first career sack on then-Patriots QB, Cam Newton. This was also in a miserable 45-0 loss for the Bolts and feels like a lifetime ago

Time has moved on since, to the point where it is easy to forget that the Chargers traded up for the rights to take Murray in the draft and that he was also the other first-round pick in 2020, the same year they took Justin Herbert.

Perhaps I am being unkind. There have been flashes from Murray in other games in the past, even stretches of games, but there hasn’t been consistent play over an extended period of time. Nothing like the player we saw at Oklahoma, and nothing like what fans expect from a first-round draft pick.

2023 feels different and from Murray’s perspective, it probably needs to be as it is a make-or-break year.

It feels like the Chargers' PR machine was doing its best to talk up Murray in the early days of training camp. Free agency meant that Drue Tranquill left and was replaced by Eric Kendricks. Kendricks was quick to talk up Murray as a person and a player, noting how Murray had been a huge help to him in learning the defense and how their cohesion is only going to improve the more they play together.

"Me and K9 have been working really good [sic] together, it’s been really good playing with him, I feel like we’re feeding off each other."

Kendricks went on to compliant Murray’s improving play-recognition and speed saying the “sky’s the limit”.

If Kendricks is correct and the game is slowing down for Murray then perhaps a big uptick in play is around the corner for the fourth-year linebacker.

Kenneth Murray is primed for a breakout for the Chargers

We often see players perform their best in contract years. The Chargers declined Murray’s fifth-year option, so Murray is playing for his next contract which, given the Bolts are currently around $46m over the projected 2024 salary cap, is likely to be with another team.

Despite the likelihood that Murray will move on after this season, they will still benefit from improved linebacker play. We all know their run defense needs it given their struggles in 2022, where the team gave up an average of 144.2 yards per game. The defensive line is a massive part of those struggles but successful run-fits require the linebackers to execute their responsibilities too. Hopefully, this is an area that Kendricks was referring to when discussing how the game is slowing for Murray.

Murray has the physical tools and potentially more importantly, he has had a clean bill of health. This year is the first time in three years that Murray hasn’t spent a portion of training camp recovering from surgery. The only other time was his rookie year, which is a time when young players notoriously get very little time to settle into the rhythms and rigors of NFL life.

Murray is always best served as a run-and-chase linebacker, using his speed to cover from sideline to sideline. He showed his power in training camp in the running back vs. linebacker drills. Physically it’s all there for Murray as long as he is put in advantageous situations by Brandon Staley and allowed to play to his strengths.

Aside from his contract situation, the other aspect that is adding pressure to Murray’s situation is the fact that the team drafted Daiyan Henley in the third round this spring. Henley is adding energy to the middle of the Chargers’ defense and is making plays in Week 3 of the preseason.

Murray is listed as the starter, and rightly so at this point. Henley will need to earn his stripes on special teams at first and on defense when he gets the opportunity. That said, I am sure the team brass and fans will have Murray on a short leash and be quick to call on Henley if Murray isn’t performing.

Either way, I feel like the team is in a good spot whether Murray steps up or not but it would be nice to get some kind of return on a player they’ve invested three seasons in so far.