Los Angeles Times

A revamped defense and a lot of questions

Chargers need new faces to jell quickly as camp begins.

- By Jeff Miller

The Chargers rolled up to their Costa Mesa headquarte­rs — often in stylish rides with eye-catching rims and eye-denying windows — Tuesday, the official reporting date for training camp.

They will conduct their first on-field full-team practice Wednesday at the nearby Jack Hammett Sports Complex.

Having missed the playoffs three consecutiv­e years, general manager Tom Telesco spent the offseason rebuilding a defense that too often in 2021 failed to sufficient­ly support an offense led by Pro Bowl quarterbac­k Justin Herbert.

Telesco traded for threetime All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack, signed seven defensive free agents — at a total price of $126 million, $59 million of which is guaranteed — and drafted four more defenders.

The free-agent additions included Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson and starting interior tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson.

With the roster redo, the Chargers emerged as a trendy pick to make a Super Bowl run coming out of the AFC West, widely recognized as the NFL’s toughest division.

So it will take improved defensive play and everything Herbert and the offense provided last season — plus some more, likely — for the Chargers to realize the potential so many observers see in them.

As their opening practice of a season that could extend into February beckons, six questions remain to monitor over the course of training camp:

Who plays right tackle?

Storm Norton returns for his fourth season after starting 15 games in 2021. But Pro Football Focus ranked Norton as no better than the league’s 69th-best tackle last season.

He will compete with 2019 third-round pick Trey Pipkins III for the starting job from Day 1 of camp. The Chargers have plenty of time invested in Pipkins, who was a small-college project coming into the league.

Norton and Pipkins have displayed potential but consistenc­y has been the issue. The Chargers would love for one to grab the starting job emphatical­ly.

How will Zion Johnson fit in at right guard?

The Chargers named Johnson their starter moments after drafting him 17th overall in April. Nothing during the offseason program altered that projection, Johnson arriving with perhaps the largest biceps on the team. But the pads will soon come on and Johnson will have to prove himself worthy of being a starter.

The left side of the offensive line is set with young Pro Bowl tackle Rashawn Slater and sturdy veteran guard Matt Feiler. Center Corey Linsley is among the NFL’s best. The progress of the right side, with Johnson and Norton, will be watched closely this summer.

Can rookie Isaiah Spiller take over No. 2 back spot?

The Chargers’ search for a consistent complement to Austin Ekeler enters its third season and with another new contender. The team took Spiller out of Texas A&M with its third selection, No. 123 overall.

He joins Joshua Kelley (No. 112 in 2020) and Larry Rountree III (No. 198 in 2021) as recent draft picks added in the hopes of sharing the load with Ekeler, who has genuinely begged for help the last two seasons.

The Chargers also have hopes that Spiller’s potential as a runner and passcatche­r will push Kelley and Rountree to greater heights.

When will Kenneth Murray Jr. be ready to contribute?

The Chargers placed the young inside linebacker on the physically unable to perform list Tuesday as he continues to come back from ankle surgery in April. Murray can be activated at any time.

The team traded secondand third-round picks in 2020 to move back into the first round to select Murray, an explosive playmaker out of Oklahoma.

After a rookie year in which he regularly displayed promise — and made a team-leading 107 tackles for then-coach Anthony Lynn — Murray struggled last season while battling multiple ankle injuries.

It remains to be seen whether Murray can establish himself as a more consistent performer in Brandon Staley’s scheme.

How quickly will the defense come together?

Collecting the pieces is one thing; molding them into a cohesive, effective group is a different challenge. The Chargers need to sort out roles in the secondary and establish rotations among their linebacker­s and upfront.

Staley and defensive coordinato­r Renaldo Hill also have to determine the best way to use veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who can play inside and outside, and joins the team with significan­t championsh­ip experience.

In 2021, the defense struggled for stretches while adjusting to Staley’s scheme. Avoiding those same kinds of lapses will be key.

Can the special teams be remotely close to special?

The Chargers believe they have their kicker in Dustin Hopkins, who returns after taking over for the final 11 games last season.

After that, all the specialist­s — punter JK Scott, long snapper Josh Harris and returner DeAndre Carter — are new.

The Chargers also have a new special teams coordinato­r (Ryan Ficken) and assistant (Chris Gould), so the commitment to improvemen­t — or at least change — couldn’t be more obvious.

As much as the starters don’t play these days in the NFL preseason, those snaps will be vital for the Chargers in identifyin­g the players who will man their kicking teams as they try to fix what has become an annual shortcomin­g.

 ?? Marcio Jose Sanchez Associated Press ?? KHALIL MACK, a three-time All-Pro edge rusher, was among several additions made by general manager Tom Telesco to the defense during the offseason.
Marcio Jose Sanchez Associated Press KHALIL MACK, a three-time All-Pro edge rusher, was among several additions made by general manager Tom Telesco to the defense during the offseason.

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