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Chargers

Chargers draft analysis: Defensive line dealing with a significant gap

FOXBOROUGH, MA, SUNDAY, JANUARY 13, 2019 - Chargers defensive lineman Brandon Meban takes the field
Chargers defensive lineman Brandon Mebane takes the field with teammates before a playoff game against the Patriots in January.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As the Chargers prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 2 of 8: Defensive line.

There remains great uncertainty — outside the organization, at least — about who the Chargers will select at No. 28 overall in the first round of the NFL draft April 25 in Nashville.

Much clearer is the public belief that the player in question will play along the defensive line.

On the interior, a significant gap exists where the 2018 Chargers employed the likes of Corey Liuget, Damion Square and Darius Philon. Liuget and Square remain free agents, while Philon signed with Arizona.

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For what it’s worth, throughout last season, Chargers coaches regularly praised Square for his ability to fill multiple roles as the team dealt with injuries and other absences.

Veteran nose tackle Brandon Mebane is returning, having signed a two-year deal worth up to $10.55 million in March.

He continues to play at a commendable level at age 34 and is coming off a season in which his status as a locker room leader and man of character grew even more as he dealt with the death of his infant daughter.

Still, the Chargers are thin on the defensive interior up front, so a player such as Clemson’s 340-pound Dexter Lawrence is one potential first-round target. Lawrence dominated against the run in college, and some projections have him emerging as a pass-rushing threat too.

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Other possibilities include Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, Mississippi State’s Jeffery Simmons and Clemson’s Christian Wilkins. Then again, the Chargers might not even take a defensive lineman in the first round. Drafting so low in the round only adds to the mystery.

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What is beyond doubt is the fact the Chargers will bolster their defensive line between now and the start of training camp. Like most teams, this one is best when employing a rotation to keep its linemen fresh.

Also true is that the Chargers have two accomplished edge rushers in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Finding sufficient support inside remains a priority.

Under contract for 2019: Melvin Ingram ($19.625 million), Joey Bosa ($8,232,532), Brandon Mebane ($4.3 million), Justin Jones ($839,535), T.Y. McGill ($805,000), Anthony Lanier ($720,000), Isaac Rochell ($645,000), Patrick Afriyie ($495,000).

Free agents: Liuget has played for no other NFL team since the Chargers drafted him in the first round in 2011. He started 100 of the 102 games in which he appeared entering last season. But he missed the first four games of 2018 because of a suspension for failing a performance-enhancing drug test and later suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury.

Draft: Simmons might be the most intriguing possibility for the Chargers. A possessor of first-round talent, he has had off-field issues that could scare some teams away and also is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered while training in February. How far Simmons does or doesn’t drop will be one of the top stories of the first round.

Roster decisions: No matter what moves the Chargers make along their defensive front, Jones will be counted on to take a step forward in 2019. As his rookie season progressed, he steadily emerged as a reliable contributor. Jones was a third-round pick a year ago, and his continued development will be crucial for the Chargers.

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NEXT: Defensive backs.

jeff.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffMillerLAT


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