Early look at the Chargers’ 2023 defensive free agents

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The Chargers currently have about $16.5 million in cap space left for 2022.

While Tom Telesco historically uses roughly $7 million of that on in-season acquisitions, that still leaves close to $9.5 million that should be rolled over onto the 2023 cap. It’s an important number to keep an eye on with a few key contributors set to hit free agency.

With that being said, here’s an early look at the defensive players Los Angeles will need to decide on next offseason.

Likely to be Retained

Derwin James, S

Drue Tranquill, LB

Nasir Adderley, S

James is a franchise cornerstone and has made a point of stepping into a leadership role during OTAs this offseason. He was also one of the representatives at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new team facility in El Segundo in mid-May, along with QB Justin Herbert. While his extension isn’t done yet, the two-time All-Pro doesn’t seem worried about it, saying last week that it’ll “take care of itself”. Ideally, Los Angeles locks him up before the season even starts, because it’s clear that they don’t intend to let James hit the open market. So expect big money, but perhaps not market-setting numbers given James’ injury history.

Adderley had his best season as a pro in 2021, earning a 66.2 PFF grade for the year. While he’s had his ups and downs, playing alongside a healthy James has helped elevate Adderley’s game to new heights. There are still a few times where his pursuit angles could be better, but he only recently turned 25 and still has plenty of time to grow even further. Remember that this is a player who had almost all of his rookie year in 2019 taken from him due to injury and then dealt with the COVID-19 impacted offseason in 2020. The fact that he took a step forward when healthy with a more routine offseason in 2021 should be a good sign. I expect him to be back beyond 2022.

Tranquill is the hardest one of these to nail down. On the one hand, he’s talented enough to be retained. He seems to be well-liked in the locker room, considering Herbert and corner Asante Samuel Jr. have both recently appeared on Tranquill’s podcast. But on the other hand, we just watched this regime let Kyzir White walk after his best season as a pro. Brandon Staley’s defense largely seeks to eliminate the concept of the linebacker with a healthy dose of 5-1 fronts. However, Tranquill is arguably LA’s best linebacker heading into 2022, and I choose to believe another season of solid play will be enough to convince the front office that he deserves to stick around.

Make or Break Season

Jerry Tillery, IDL

Christian Covington, IDL

The fact that this is a make-or-break season for Tillery shouldn’t come as a surprise after Los Angeles declined his fifth-year option. What was surprising, however, was the fourth-year pro’s absence from the first week of OTAs, perhaps a sign that the former first-rounder is less than thrilled with how things are going. It’s suddenly a heated battle for snaps along the defensive line. Staley has said that outside of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, it will essentially be an open competition for reps. Recent signing Morgan Fox is familiar with the defensive system and seems like an easy choice as Tillery’s replacement in the starting lineup should it come to that. Rookie Otito Ogbonnia is also a candidate to eat into his snaps. I lean towards the opinion that Tillery will be in a different uniform in 2023, but I do hope that he can find a more stable footing this season.

It’s a similar outlook for Covington, who I think could be a surprise roster cut before the 2022 season even opens if he’s not at his sharpest during camp. Joseph-Day, Johnson, Ogbonnia, Fox, and Tillery seem likely to make the roster, and LA only kept five defensive linemen last season. A sixth is expected this year, with it likely coming down to Covington versus Breiden Fehoko, who was one of the better run stoppers on last year’s team and would provide quality depth. Maybe Covington’s veteran presence is enough to keep him on the team, but I think he’d have to elevate his play from 2021 to earn another contract. That’s not to say he was bad in 2021, but the quality of the position group has improved since then.

Too Early to Tell

Kyle Van Noy, EDGE

Bryce Callahan, CB

Morgan Fox, IDL

Troy Reeder, LB

All four players were signed this offseason to one-year deals, but all four should see time at some point or another. Van Noy is this year’s Kyler Fackrell, the third pass rusher on a prove-it deal. I’m interested to see if Staley leans into his versatility to manufacture some linebacker production as well, especially in those 5-1 fronts where Van Noy could drop into a more traditional LB role from the line of scrimmage.

Callahan will be part of what looks to be a healthy rotation at corner while pulling double duty as a mentor for Asante Samuel Jr., a player with similar traits to Callahan’s. Expect him to see most of his reps in the slot when LA wants to keep Samuel on the outside, but there will also be plenty of times where Samuel moves inside to get Michael Davis some live reps on the boundary. Staying healthy will be the big key for Callahan, who’s never played every game in an NFL season.

Despite being on the market until May after being released by Carolina, I think Fox will be competing for a starting role in powder blue. I imagine he’ll end up splitting time with Tillery, but Fox brings better run defense ability without trading in too much value as a pass rusher. Returning to Staley’s defensive system, which earned him the two-year, $8 million contract from the Panthers in the first place, should also help him return to form.

Reeder should primarily be a special teams and depth addition, considering the Chargers rarely put three linebackers on the field at once. With Tranquill and Kenneth Murray set to hold down the two starting jobs, he’ll mostly get rotational snaps and fill in for injuries. However, considering his familiarity with the defensive scheme from his time on the Rams, he should be at least serviceable if pressed into full-time action.