Chargers have a terrific crew at cornerback, but they still need plenty of help at safety

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As the Chargers prepare for the NFL draft, the Los Angeles Times will examine their roster. Part 3 of 8: Defensive backs.

If there was a defining image from the Chargers’ 2017 season, it was the team’s defensive backfield mugging for cameras in the end zone, celebrating a turnover.

It was a group celebration, done plenty of times as the defensive backs developed into one of the most dominant units on the team.


Cornerback Casey Hayward backed up his breakout 2016 season with another turn as one of the league’s top coverage men, earning a three-year, $36 million extension in March.

Trevor Williams, a former undrafted free agent, looked like a prototypical fit in Gus Bradley’s defense, playing on the fringes of Pro Bowl-level football for most of the season.

Rookie Desmond King, the Chargers’ fifth-round pick, excelled in the slot, showing toughness and tackling with terrific instincts.

At safety, Jahleel Addae and Tre Boston were rocks, playing nearly every snap. Boston had five interceptions and Addae proved the contract he signed before the season was money well spent.

Most are back — Boston is a free agent — and so will be cornerback Jason Verrett, a 2015 Pro Bowler who missed the bulk of the last two seasons with knee problems.

As in previous seasons, the Chargers — tight on salary-cap space — appear to be looking for economical options at the position.


Jaylen Watkins was signed to a one-year deal, giving the fifth-year corner/safety a chance to compete for a job. The other safeties, Adrian Phillips and Rayshawn Jenkins, could get auditions to replace Boston.

The Chargers also could replace Boston in the draft. Florida State’s Derwin James would be an ideal fit for the back of Bradley’s defense. James probably won’t be available when the Chargers pick at No. 17 in the first round, but with teams not valuing safeties in free agency, and some injury concerns and inconsistencies in James’ past, there is a chance he slides.

Stanford’s Justin Reid and Wake Forest’s Jessie Bates could be options if the Chargers select a safety after the first round.

Defensive backs under contract: Casey Hayward ($6.8 million), Jason Verrett ($8.53 million), Trevor Williams ($630,000), Desmond King ($625,000), Michael Davis ($555,000), Craig Mager ($705,000), Jeff Richards ($480,000), Jahleel Addae ($5.5 million), Adrian Phillips ($1.5 million), Rayshawn Jenkins ($720,553), Jaylen Watkins ($720,000), A.J. Hendy ($480,000).

Free agents: The Chargers have valued continuity, and bringing back Tre Boston would go a long way toward keeping last season’s cohesiveness. He’s a good leader with a positive spirit, but will the price be right? There are other options out there if Boston lands elsewhere. Remember, the Chargers found Boston after the draft last season.

Draft: The Chargers probably won’t be looking at cornerbacks until the late rounds, but safety will be an option every time they’re on the clock. For their scheme, they are looking for a safety who can cover deep.


Roster decisions: The biggest concerns Jason Verrett. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2014, is going into the final year of his rookie deal, and is fresh off two knee surgeries. If he’s healthy, he’ll be like a found $100 bill in a coat pocket. But, with his injury history, can he be counted on long-term even if he puts together a healthy 2018? Verrett has a lot of upside, the Chargers have depth at cornerback and that could make him a trade piece on draft day.

Follow Dan Woike on Twitter @DanWoikeSports