San Diego Chargers: Post-Draft Defensive Breakdown
Last week I looked at how the offense was shaping up going into the 2012 season (see the slideshow here), and now it's time to look at the defensive side of the ball.
It seems almost impossible to think that the Chargers had the No. 1 ranked defense in all of football just two years ago under former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
After Rivera left to become the head coach of the Carolina Panthers last year, the Chargers defense struggled and finished the season ranked 16th in the league.
To go from the best defense in the NFL to just about average isn't something Chargers fans were hoping for. But with the introduction of new defensive coordinator John Pagano and after several key offseason moves like re-signing Antonio Garay, signing Jarret Johnson and drafting Melvin Ingram, the defense is looking to bounce back this season.
So what will the defense look like in 2012? Let’s find out.
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Starting with the defensive line, it looks like it's going to be a mixture of veteran leaders with promising young players at defensive end.
The team drafted UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes in the second round of the draft, and he'll be asked to make the transition to 3-4 defensive end for the Chargers.
Reyes will compete with last year's first-round pick Corey Liuget to start at defensive end. Liuget will be looking to improve on an inconsistent first season during which he showed flashes of potential along with rookie mistakes.
On the other side of the line, the team welcomes back Luis Castillo to the mix. Castillo was initially released but has since reworked his contract to stay with the team. If he can stay clear of injuries, he should continue to be a key player for the defense. Veteran Jacques Cesaire should serve as Castillo's backup.
Projected DE Depth Chart:
LE: 1. Luis Castillo 2. Jacques Cesaire
RE: 1. Corey Liuget 2. Kendall Reyes
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Defensive tackle is looking like one of the strongest positions on the Chargers defense.
Antonio Garay is the only true nose tackle on the roster, and he was re-signed to a new two-year deal this offseason. He is a solid run stopper who is a real force inside but is usually replaced on third-down passing situations.
Aside from Garay, there are two improving defensive tackles waiting in reserve.
Vaughn Martin and Cam Thomas both made solid contributions on defense last year with career-high numbers (Martin had a career-high 47 tackles and Thomas had a career-high four sacks), and both will see plenty of playing time again this season.
Expect to see Martin line up at both defensive end and tackle as he is a versatile D-lineman.
Thomas will be used more at defensive tackle and should step in to replace Garay on passing downs.
Projected DT Depth Chart:
1. Antonio Garay 2. Vaughn Martin 3. Cam Thomas
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A couple of familiar faces return from last season along with a few new additions at outside linebacker.
Veteran Jarret Johnson was signed as a free-agent acquisition from the Baltimore Ravens and is expected to start alongside Shaun Phillips. Johnson is an experienced run stopper, and Phillips will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing year in which he had a career-low 3.5 sacks.
Waiting in reserve are rookie Melvin Ingram and Antwan Barnes. Barnes was the team leader last year with 11 sacks and should continue to fill in for Shaun Phillips as a pass-rushing specialist.
Ingram will be used at a number of positions in his rookie year and could possibly have an Aldon Smith-type impact for the Chargers. Despite the fact that he isn't likely to start, don't be surprised to see Ingram finish the year with 10 sacks.
Finally we get to former first-round pick Larry English. English is entering his fourth season with the team and has just seven sacks in his NFL career. He should see some playing time as a converted DE/OLB pass rusher.
Projected OLB Depth Chart:
LOLB: 1. Jarret Johnson 2. Melvin Ingram 3. Larry English
ROLB: 1. Shaun Phillips 2. Antwan Barnes
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Both starting middle linebackers from last year stay in tact as Takeo Spikes looks set for a second season starting alongside Donald Butler.
Spikes will be hoping to follow up his successful first season with the team in which he had over 100 tackles. Butler is still improving and will only get better in his second year as a starter.
In reserve, Demorrio Williams and Jonas Mouton are expected to serve as backups. Williams is a former Kansas City Chief who was one of the Chargers' first free-agent signings this offseason, and Mouton is hoping to bounce back from a rookie season-ending shoulder injury and could see playing time on special teams.
Projected MLB Depth Chart:
1. Takeo Spikes 2. Donald Butler 3. Demorrio Williams 4. Jonas Mouton
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Cornerback appears to be the weakest position on defense going into the season. Starters Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason have both had individual issues in the past.
Jammer will be 33 years old by the time the season starts and is clearly coming towards the end of his career. Cason can often be exposed by better quarterbacks in the league and is still showing signs of inconsistency despite being a four-year veteran.
Last year's rookies Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright are the only other cornerbacks currently on the roster. Both showed signs of promise, but it is still unclear if they will ever develop into full-time starters.
The Buffalo Bills recently released Drayton Florence, and the former Charger may be worth bringing back to San Diego to compete at cornerback.
Projected CB Depth Chart:
1. Quentin Jammer 2. Antonie Cason 3. Marcus Gilchrist 4. Shareece Wright
Donald Miralle/Getty Images
And finally we get to the safety position where Eric Weddle returns as one of the league's best.
Weddle has been an All-Pro for the past two seasons and is coming off another impressive season in which he had seven interceptions. He will continue to start at free safety.
Moving to strong safety, the Chargers have three players fighting for the starting role. Darrell Stuckey has yet to start a game for the Chargers and should continue to act as a backup this season, perhaps moving to play behind Weddle at free safety.
Atari Bigby is another possible option. Bigby is another offseason signing, and despite being injury-prone in the past, he can still be a solid contributor when healthy.
The final candidate for the starting job is rookie Brandon Taylor. Taylor was drafted in the third round and should step in to start immediately at strong safety.
Projected S Depth Chart:
FS: 1. Eric Weddle 2. Darrell Stuckey
SS: 1. Brandon Taylor 2. Atari Bigby
Al Bello/Getty Images
In closing, the Chargers defense is looking to bounce back this season with the right players now in place to do so.
Although the front seven looks strong, the backend of the defense has me worried.
Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason must improve this season, and it will be interesting to see how rookie Brandon Taylor adapts to being a starting safety in the NFL.
With offense and defense taken care off, all that remains now is special teams.
Since it is special teams, I won't be going into as much depth as I did for offense and defense, but I think it's still important to conclude my full breakdown of the roster for the upcoming season.
So check back next week as I break down the Chargers special teams for this season.
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