Bolstered Chargers defense looks to build on last year’s promise as minicamp begins

Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman celebrates after recovering a fumble against the Cleveland Browns in December 2017. Perryman is eager to play his role for the Chargers' defense after his 2018 season was derailed by injury.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

His season ended prematurely, in mid-November, a knee injury forcing Denzel Perryman to miss the Chargers’ final seven regular-season games and the playoffs.

And, yes, he did shed tears — four months later.

In March, upon the signing of a new two-year contract with the team, Perryman wept and was rendered speechless.

The very raw and tender reaction from a linebacker who hits so hard that teammates once called him “Baby Thump” was chronicled on video by the Chargers’ social media crew.


“It was an emotional 24 hours,” Perryman explained recently. “Obviously, the world saw me cry. The reason I got so emotional … I didn’t know what was going to happen. Putting pen to paper was just unreal.”

So Perryman, 26, is back for his fifth season on a defense that returns largely intact and also fortified, the members of that defense convinced they’re on the verge of being something special.

The Chargers finished one victory short of the AFC title game last season and now — with their three-day mandatory minicamp set to begin Tuesday in Costa Mesa — are prepping for further progress.

“I know it will be special,” safety Derwin James said of the team’s defense. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll be special this year.”

The Chargers were the NFL’s ninth-best team defensively in 2018. They thrived despite a rash of injuries, especially at linebacker, and without decorated edge rusher Joey Bosa until midseason.

Along with Perryman, they also re-signed linemen Brandon Mebane and Damion Square and safety Adrian Phillips. Through free agency, they added veteran linebacker Thomas Davis.

The Chargers used five of their seven draft selections in April on defensive players, including lineman Jerry Tillery and safety Nasir Adderley in the first and second rounds, respectively.

“They’re dogs,” Phillips said of the defense’s latest top two picks. “I mean, they were dogs in college. We expect them to be dogs here.”


As for the defense as a whole, Phillips said: “We’re about to take that next step. I want to be a part of taking that next step.”

Gone from last season are safety Jahleel Addae, linebacker Kyle Emanuel and linemen Darius Philon and Corey Liuget.

All four started games for the Chargers, but the team does return 12 of its top 14 contributors in total tackles from a year ago.

“I think the biggest thing is we’ve had a lot of retention,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “You start to see guys understanding the defense and the package from a broader perspective, starting to understand offenses better and better.


“We have a group of guys who push each other. You look at the defensive line, some of the leaders we have on the line and some of the great talent we have. It’s easy to get better in that environment.”

One defensive priority for 2019 already established is the desire to create more turnovers. The Chargers were just plus-one in takeaways last season.

Baltimore (minus-three) and Philadelphia (minus-six) were the only playoff teams that were worse.

The 2018 Chargers produced 20 turnovers, which was absolutely average league-wide, tying for 16th out of 32 teams.


“Getting the ball, that’s the most important thing,” James said. “I feel like if we can get the ball to our offense, especially the offense we have, that can change the game.”

A healthier season could be enough to propel this defense. The list of players who missed significant time a year ago but are back includes Trevor Williams. The cornerback established himself as a starter in 2017 but then was slowed by an early ankle injury before a knee injury cost him his starting job and his confidence.

Williams admits now that his limited playing time last season was riddled with mistakes. His approach to this offseason has been a simplified perspective and a focus to returning to what made him a starter in the first place.

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He’ll enter training camp competing with Michael Davis for his old job.

“I have to tell you, Trevor looks outstanding,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “His confidence is back. His change of direction is night-and-day. It’s going to be a nice little competition over there.”

And then there’s Perryman, whose anticipated return already has teammates such as Phillips wondering how far this defense can advance.

“We got a lot of energy on the team already,” Phillips said. “But when Denzel comes back out there, it raises up a whole other notch. That’s how vital he is to our defense. You know any time he’s in there he’s destined to knock somebody’s head off … legally.”


Twitter: @JeffMillerLAT