Analysis: Chargers defense position-by-position breakdown

Derwin James’ foot injury last season had a ripple effect throughout the Chargers’ defense. It gave the team a glimpse of life without the star safety, who had numerous roles in his memorable 2018 rookie season.

The Chargers lacked depth and playmakers while James was sidelined for 11 games. They addressed those defensive shortcomings by signing nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and traded back into the first round to select linebacker Kenneth Murray.

But the Chargers’ dreams of having a stacked defense with a healthy James will have to wait until the 2021 season. James isn’t coming back this year because of a knee injury he sustained last month.

Losing James will hurt the secondary, but now the Chargers have plenty of talent in the front seven to take some pressure off the safeties.

Here’s a look at the Chargers’ defense heading into the 2020 regular season, which opens Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals:

DEFENSIVE LINE

James’ absence last season affected Gus Bradley’s defensive play calling. Without his pass-rushing safety, the Chargers finished 28th in sacks (30) and last in takeaways (14) last season.

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said he wanted Bradley to be more aggressive this season. Bradley can still have a surge in blitzes without James because of the addition of Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler who left the Vikings for the Chargers.

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The Chargers are enamored with their new teammate and have used many creative descriptions for the 6-foot-4, 329-pound nose tackle.

Defensive end Joey Bosa called him the strongest human he’s ever come across, with that strength creating space for him and fellow pass rusher Melvin Ingram to frequently attack quarterbacks.

If third-year defensive tackle Justin Jones has his breakout season like many players and coaches have predicted, the Chargers might have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.

LINEBACKER

The Chargers traded their second- and third-round picks to the New England Patriots to select Kenneth Murray with the 23rd overall pick because of his versatility.

But before the Chargers unleash the rookie as a do-it-all linebacker, they’ll keep him in his familiar middle linebacker role, which he played at Oklahoma.

Murray will call the defensive plays and focus on stopping the run, but it shouldn’t be long before he’s going after quarterbacks.

The Chargers will be able to move Murray around because of Drue Tranquill’s experience as a middle linebacker. Tranquill might not be as physical as Murray, but he emerged as a rookie last season because of his standout pass coverage skills.

Tranquill and Murray have the makings of forming a dynamic linebacker duo for years to come. The Chargers have plenty of depth behind them with Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White, Nick Vigil and Emeke Egbule.

CORNERBACK

It took time, but Chris Harris Jr.’s role is set – he’s going to play a lot.

While many dwelled on Harris being a nickel corner or outside corner, the Chargers have hinted they plan on playing him at both positions depending on the opposing offenses’ personnel.

No. 1 outside cornerback Casey Hayward is no longer the only Pro Bowler in the Chargers’ cornerback room with the addition of Harris.

Michael Davis will see plenty of snaps as an outside cornerback whenever Harris moves to the nickel spot.

The position will lose depth with Desmond King expected to move to safety after the loss of James. King was a 2018 All-Pro because of his play as a nickel cornerback.

SAFETY

The Chargers released their first depth chart of the season Tuesday, with Rayshawn Jenkins and Nasir Adderley listed as the starting safeties.

It wasn’t specified, but if this depth chart is accurate for Sunday, Jenkins will likely move from free safety to strong safety to fill James’ void.

Adderley isn’t a newcomer, but him being healthy gives the Chargers another player they didn’t have last year while James was sidelined.

Adderley, the 2019 second-round pick, had an impressive training camp and his knack for creating turnovers could help the team in 2020. He played only 10 defensive snaps last year because of a hamstring injury.

King will also be in the rotation and will likely serve as the sixth defensive back, also known as the “dimebacker” role Adrian Phillips had the past few seasons before joining the New England Patriots in the offseason.

Rookie strong safety Alohi Gilman will see snaps on defense and special teams after impressing coaches during training camp.