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The Los Angeles Chargers enter the draft season with some pressing needs to address. Certainly protecting quarterback Justin Herbert is at the top of that list, and that explains acquisitions like center Corey Linsley and guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi. Still, adding a left tackle could top their list of needs and if Rashawn Slater somehow is available when the Chargers are on the clock with the 13th-overall selection, that might be their decision.
They could also look to address tight end in the departure of Hunter Henry. Yes, the team signed Jared Cook in free agency as a potential replacement, but Los Angeles could look to add to that position room.
Defensively, there is a need on the interior of the defensive line, given that 2019 first-round selection Jerry Tillery has not lived up to his billing coming out of college. But recently I have started thinking that the Chargers could go in a different direction, and add to their cornerback room with the pick at 13, and I keep coming back to one name:
Last season the Los Angeles Rams assembled perhaps the next big thing on the defensive side of the football. Led by young defensive coordinator Brandon Staley they aligned with two-high safeties on early downs, daring teams to run the football against light defensive fronts. Still, they were able to stop the run out of those packages — having a world-destroyer at defensive tackle like Aaron Donald certainly helps — but that let them play with advantageous numbers in the secondary.
However, Staley did not just stay static in the secondary, he used those numbers to his advantage. Seth Galina, one of the foremost experts on schematic football today, put together a deep dive on Staley’s defense and noted this about their coverages:
Where the Rams have been fun is in their coverages, where they’ve also used a lot of collegiate ideas. First, they rarely show you what they are going to play pre-snap. They’ve shown a two-high coverage and then spun down to single-high look after the snap 148 times this year, second to only Fangio’s Broncos.
Even if they are going to play a one-high coverage, they don’t want to reveal that information until it’s too late. This helps get free players in the run game because offensive lines won’t count the spinning safety in their count and against the pass because the disguise can confuse the quarterback.
In fact, Galina’s piece was one of the inspirations for my own look at the future of offense, and in that article I worked through how offenses are going to adjust to these kinds of defenses and rotations, primarily with route combinations that provide answers against both single-high safety looks and two-high coverages.
Staley remains in Los Angeles for the 2021 season, but is wearing different colors. Now the new head coach of the Chargers, it is expected that Staley will implement a similar model on the defensive side of the football that he was running last season with the Rams. Some of the pieces are already in place, such as a world-destroying defensive end (Joey Bosa) and a pair of safeties that can thrive in different roles (Nasir Adderly and Derwin James). Those safeties are important because they are needed to help in the run fit out of the two-high looks, as Galina noted:
Another piece I wrote this offseason dealt with the impending quarters-defense revolution in the NFL. I looked at how teams play quarters coverage in the NFL but don’t play it on early downs like the 2020 Rams have — they generally play a very basic spot-dropping version of it where the nickelback aligns inside the slot receiver and then drops inside-out of that player. By aligning him inside the slot, he can trigger and make the tackle if a run were to be called. And even when the NFL does play two-high, they still make sure their nickelback can still be in the run fit.
The Rams have moved that nickelback outside the slot receiver. There’s been a lot of talk about how the Rams call this position the “star,” but as Louis Riddick mentioned on Monday Night Football, this is just a Saban-ese term for the nickelback. Not only are the Rams playing two-high coverages most of the time, but they are also living in a world where the nickelback is not in the run fit anymore and has to be replaced by the safety to that side of the field, and yet they can still stop the run efficiently.
Obviously James was out for last season, but when healthy he is an effective defender against the run. Adderly is suited for more of the traditional center-fielder safety role, but was actually solid in run support last season.
That brings us to the cornerback room, and one of the things that Staley had at his disposal in 2020 was the supremely talented Jalen Ramsey. In an era where NFL offenses try everything they can to create mismatches — and then exploit them — Ramsey is a defensive coordinator’s best friend. He can be the “matchup eraser,” the kind of cornerback you put on the offensive weapon that keeps you up at night:
It just so happens that the Rams have one of the best man-to-man cornerbacks in the NFL with Jalen Ramsey, which certainly helps. The quarters-inside-but-man-outside coverages have been very popular in college football for a while now, whether it’s from Mark Dantonio at Michigan State in the late 2000s or Dave Aranda at LSU recently, these are not new coverages at that level. They are in the NFL, especially on early downs.
Finally, in regard to Ramsey, Staley is not tied to set positions. The Florida State product is such a unique figure that, especially against teams without a true star X receiver, Ramsey has slid inside to this star/nickelback position. He still plays most of his snaps outside, but Ramsey has found himself as the slot corner on 110 snaps this season. He only played 80 slot snaps in total in 2019.
Galina’s piece was published in October so those numbers only increased. Having spent the first part of this week charting out Ramsey’s 2020 season — as one does during Spring Break — I counted him with 552 snaps on the boundary and 203 in the slot. He gave Staley the ability to play matchups in the secondary, and align Ramsey over players that he was worried about in the passing game. Some weeks you might see him in the slot over DeAndre Hopkins, like he is here in Week 13 where he aligns inside before zoning off as the Rams drop into Cover-4:
On this play from Week 12 you’ll find Ramsey in the slot on a pivotal third down late against the San Francisco 49ers, handling the speedy Kendrick Bourne in the slot in man coverage:
Then when you start looking at Ramsey’s snaps in a boundary alignment, you can see him working against options like George Kittle and Dallas Goedert, tight ends who their coaches use to generate those mismatches. Here is Ramsey operating as a Cover-3 corner against Kittle as the tight end tries to work an in-cut:
Kyle Shanahan uses pre-snap motion to try and create the matchup he wants, with Kittle working against Ramsey. But the cornerback is up to the challenge, breaking on the throw and disrupting the catch point.
Here is Ramsey matched up against Goedert back in Week 2:
The Rams run Cover-6 here, with Ramsey operating on the Cover-4/Quarters side of the field, albeit from a press alignment. He has to handle Goedert vertically, and while a better throw here could have resulted in a big play, you can see how Staley used Ramsey again on a potential mismatch offensive player. We conclude with this example, with Ramsey aligned outside against Mike Evans, carrying another vertical route:
So we have seen what Ramsey meant to Staley’s defense last season. He gave the young defensive coordinator the type of matchup eraser that is perhaps necessary in today’s NFL. Hard to imagine a different group of players to defend than Hopkins, Bourne, Kittle, Goedert and Evans, but that is what Ramsey offers to his coaches.
That is also what Jaycee Horn could be in the NFL, given how he was used last season.
Jaycee Horn as the matchup eraser
(Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)
Jaycee Horn could be that player for Staley in the years ahead. Horn first burst onto the scene for the Gamecocks in 2018, where Pro Football Focus charted him with 330 snaps in the slot as opposed to just 181 on the outside. But in the two seasons since Horn has operated primarily on the outside, seeing 342 boundary snaps this season and just 71 on the inside.
But when you see how South Carolina used him, and who they used him against, you can see how he could be used by Staley next season in the role he carved out for Ramsey. Horn’s games against Florida and Mississippi are a fascinating study, as you will see him matched up against both Kyle Pitts all over the field, and then working against Elijah Moore, the shifty slot option.
Take this play against Pitts and the Gators:
These are two first-round picks battling it out, and no I don’t mean Kyle Trask. The Gators complete the downfield throw but you can see how — and why — the offense needs to be perfect to execute on this snap. Horn is so patient off the line even in press technique, and he has the strength to ride Pitts into the boundary. Only a perfectly-placed and timed throw enables the completion.
Later in the game Pitts caught a touchdown on a slant route in the red zone, operating away from Horn, and it seemed after that play the South Carolina coaches gave Horn a simple assignment: Follow #84. Here you’ll see Horn track Pitts across the field on a Mesh concept:
Then later in the game here is Horn showing his physical style of play against Pitts as the tight end tries to run a deep pivot route:
As we saw on the earlier completion downfield, the offense has to be perfect here to connect on this play. That is because of how Horn is so physical on the route, particularly at the top of Pitts’ break. This time the offense is not perfect and the pass falls incomplete.
Spinning ahead to the Mississippi game, it is hard to think of two more different receiving options than Yeobah and Moore. But here you see Horn aligned in press technique over the tight end to cover a slant route:
Then later in the game you see him matched up against Moore, who might have put himself in first-round contention with a tremendous pro day:
What I love about this play is again the patience from Horn. Moore throws the kitchen sink at him, with a bevy of stutter-steps and hesitation moves, but the cornerback does not bite. He stays patient in his press alignment and does not fire his hands early, so when Moore finally commits to the slant route Horn can match him easily.
Now this is not a direct, one-to-one comparison between Horn and Ramsey. This is more about scheme and usage. Staley’s defense last season with the Rams needed a player like Ramsey to erase potential mismatches, and the varied skillset of Ramsey made him perfect for that role. Watching Horn you can see how the South Carolina coaches used him in a similar manner, which could make Horn the perfect option for Staley’s Chargers defense in 2021. They have the safeties in place, and the pressure player up front in Joey Bosa. Chris Harris Jr. might be the perfect slot defender for this team generally, and with Horn, they might have the Swiss army coverage player like Ramsey, who can be used inside or outside, against any type of receiver or tight end.
That’s why I’ve got Horn slotted to the Chargers in a recent mock draft, and why I’ll be very curious to see if Staley indeed goes down this road.