Defense may be the key for the Chargers in 2023

On the fifth day of the 2023 training camp on July 31, the Los Angeles Chargers had their first practice in full uniform of the young season. Charger head coach Brandon Staley was pleased with the team's first day of practice in pads.

"There was a good pace out there," Staley said. "Any time that you put the pads on, you kind of start training camp with the physicality and the blocking and the tackling. That's where it all began, so it was good. A good tempo out there today. I thought it was a good start."

The Chargers defense played well and looked like they were having fun. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, in his second season with Chargers, seemed to enjoy himself. "It's always fun putting on the pads," Mack said. "It's where you get to do the real assessment of all the players, know your game and still be getting better every day. It's a lot more fun this year."

There is plenty of talent on the Chargers starting defensive unit, especially with the addition of veteran middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. Kendricks, who played his college football at UCLA, was first-team All-Pro in 2019. He has 113 career starts with the Minnesota Vikings and led the Vikings in tackles in 66 games. Playing alongside All-pro players like Mack, outside linebacker Joey Bosa, and safety Derwin James should make Kendricks' job with the Chargers enjoyable.

Kendricks will bring leadership, and he will likely be the defensive signal caller and have the green dot on defense. The green dot is a green sticker on the back of a helmet that is equipped with a headset, which allows the coaches to communicate with one player on defense. Kendricks will also help upgrade the tackling on the team, an issue that Staley is attempting to address in training camp.

"It's the number one fundamental for defense," Staley said. "What it leads to is if you're a quality tackling team, you're going to limit all the big plays, the explosions. What we want to make sure that we do, and it's just a big emphasis in this camp, is to tackle as much as we can and not live to the ground, but we want there to be as much contact as possible. Explosive plays, we gave up far too many last season, and tackling was a big part of it. That had a big factor in our run defense, as well. We're going to make sure that we spend a lot of time on it."

Speed at wide receiver was another issue the Chargers needed to address in the offseason and that area looks much improved. First round pick draft pick Quentin Johnston and fourth round draft pick Derius Davis, both rookies from TCU, bring speed and explosiveness. But it was wide receiver John Hightower that really impressed in Monday's practice. Hightower was a 5th round draft pick in 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He ran a 4.43 forty at the 2020 NFL combine and had a 38.5" vertical jump.

"He's done a really good job early in camp," Staley said. "I think you're seeing John and his playmaking ability because he has real speed, and he has setup, and he has enough size that gives the quarterback a lot of things to throw to. He's off to a good start in camp. I think we're much deeper at the receiver position, just in general. We just like the depth of that room right now."

Johnston is the No.4 wide receiver on the depth chart and that is not a knock on him. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are established stars at wide receiver and Josh Palmer has 105 receptions in his first two seasons, including 72 last season. All three are good route runners with good hands, but lack the explosiveness that Johnston, Davis, and Hightower bring.

Johnston was asked about the talented wide receiver room. "I said when I was first drafted the unit has been a blessing," Johnston said. "Being under those guys, especially as a new guy coming in; learning from those multi-time pro bowlers. It's good for me to sit back and listen to what they have to say, take some of their game and apply it to my game and make myself better."

Johnston also talked about catching passes from quarterback Justin Herbert, one of the best in the NFL. "It took me a few days," Johnston said. "That's just something you get used to, especially when the ball is right there in your face when you come out of routes. It's always a good feeling to have that."

The 2023 Chargers have a nice blend of youth, experience, leadership, talent and speed on their current roster. It will be up to the coaching staff to maximize the talent on the roster, and they will need some luck avoiding the injury bug, something they have not had in recent seasons. If the defensive starters can stay healthy, this will be a tough team to defeat in 2023.


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