Isaac Rochell is not the same player he was a year ago.
He’s significantly less than that. By his estimation, he’s close to 20 pounds less.
“You know you’re lighter so you just mentally feel lighter, a little bit more nimble,” the Chargers’ second-year defensive end said. “You feel better. I definitely feel like my wind is better.”
That explains how twice Saturday night Rochell blew past the Seahawk assigned to impede his path to sack Seattle’s quarterback. He brought down Russell Wilson in the second quarter and Austin Davis in the third.
With Pro Bowler Joey Bosa out with a foot injury, Rochell is receiving an extended look in his second preseason and squeezing tight the additional opportunity.
“Just his awareness, his football IQ, his alertness, his understanding of the game, his technique is getting a lot better,” defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said. “His pass rush is getting better. It’s pretty exciting to see a guy grow.”
Rochell, 23, said he was 280 pounds when the Chargers and Seahawks met last preseason. Right now, he’s closer to 260, the weight loss the result of committing to a plant-based diet.
It has been quite a departure for someone who, during much of his career at Notre Dame, survived on Little Caesars pizza. Hey, it was convenient. And it was only $5.
“If you take a 20-pound plate off your back, you’re going to feel lighter,” Rochell said. “You’re going to be quicker. But I think a big thing for me is you need to mentally feel good.”
So the loss has been so profound Rochell feels that both literal and figurative weights have been lifted from him this season.
A seventh-round pick in 2017, he has performed to the point where the Chargers believe Rochell can play both outside and inside along the defensive front and also contribute on special teams.
“He’s really become a versatile athlete,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “He can run down the field in kickoff coverage. Right now, there aren’t too many things he’s not doing.”
Rochell said his sole intent in August a year ago was to somehow make the team, seventh-round picks rarely promised anything in the NFL.
The reality of playing for his career every day proved to be almost too much for him, Rochell acknowledging he was overwhelmed and under extreme stress.
Today, much like when he steps on a scale, everything is simply lighter.
“I’m focused on just getting better,” Rochell said. “I’m focusing on being a better player at the end of the game than I was at the beginning. When you think that way, it’s easier to get better.”
Watkins placed on injured reserve
The Chargers suffered a blow Sunday when tests revealed that Jaylen Watkins injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Seattle.
Entering his fifth season in the NFL and first with the Chargers, Watkins was placed on injured reserve.
He had spent the past four years with Philadelphia, mostly as a backup and special teams player but was having a promising camp. At the least, Watkins figured to have a role this season similar to the one he had with the Eagles.
He becomes the second member of the Chargers’ secondary to suffer a significant injury this preseason, joining Jason Verrett, who was lost for the year in late July because of a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Watkins’ absence should open more opportunity for rookie Derwin James, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 draft. James played 39 snaps against the Seahawks, the third-most among Chargers defenders.
With the news on Watkins, the team claimed rookie defensive back Micah Hannemann from Cleveland. Hannemann signed with the Browns in April after going undrafted out of Brigham Young.
Williams playing big
Mike Williams called it “big-boy football.” He played big Saturday when he went over Seattle cornerback Akeem King to snatch away a 25-yard touchdown catch near the back corner of the end zone.
The third-quarter play might have been the Chargers’ single most electric moment in a game that also featured undrafted rookie J.J. Jones returning a punt 72 yards for a score.
“I felt like I was doing this in practice, needed to translate it to the game,” Williams said. “I just feel like if the ball is in the air, it’s mine.”
Williams said he suggested running the route to the Chargers coaches a couple of plays earlier because he saw how the Seahawks were defending him.
“That’s all Mike,” said Geno Smith, who threw the pass. “Mike’s a great receiver, and you need to give him a chance …That’s why he was drafted early, and he showcased some of his ability.”
Ekeler sits to nurse calf injury