Chargers are looking for a new wave of unheralded players to make a difference
Underneath the San Diego sun for the final two weeks, the Chargers will wrap their summer program with organized team activities followed by minicamp before breaking until July, a break that’ll have them coming to new digs in Costa Mesa for training camp.
Philip Rivers’ final passes at Chargers Park will be studied and dissected, and Keenan Allen’s surgically repaired knee will be tested on slants, hitches and fly routes. Melvin Gordon will slice through holes in the line, and Joey Bosa will certainly blow them up.
But some of the guys wearing the numbers you don’t immediately recognize, the ones you reach for the roster to identify, will be taking on starring roles in the B and C story lines in the final reps taken by the Chargers before going all Hollywood-ish.
One thing that’s been as San Diego as French fries in a burrito and palate-decimating IPAs has been the Chargers’ ability to use complementary running backs to augment their ground game. As LaDainian Tomlinson finished up his time with the Chargers, the team began making Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-8 dynamo, a bigger and bigger part of the offense.
After Sproles left for New Orleans, the Chargers had to wait a few seasons before re-casting that role, using Danny Woodhead as the change of pace to Ryan Mathews and, eventually, to Gordon.
But Woodhead decided not to return to the team this summer, instead signing with Baltimore as a free agent.
The team did sign Kenjon Barner as a free agent, and he fits the profile as a speedy, smaller back to pair with the more bruising style Gordon brings to the backfield. Andre Williams has had an impressive summer, too. But, a familiar face to Charger fans — albeit in a new number — might have the edge as the team’s second running back.
Branden Oliver seems fully recovered from the Achilles injury that cost him all of last season, and coach Anthony Lynn sees a player who can, really, do it all with the ball in his hands.
“He can be that power runner, but he can also run out on the perimeter,” Lynn said. “What he does, which I don’t think a lot of people give him credit for, is he catches the ball really well.”
Oliver ran for 114 yards and caught four passes for 68 yards in the Chargers’ 31-0 win in 2014 over the New York Jets, a game Lynn watched from the sideline — though he swears those memories are fully repressed.
“Amnesia,” he joked.
While Oliver got to impress Lynn on a Sunday before working with him in camp, most of the Chargers’ young players are getting their first chances to make an impression on the team and the mostly new coaching staff.
Center Spencer Pulley, an undrafted free agent the team signed last season, has been the first-team center for the summer, with last year’s center, Matt Slauson, sliding back to his natural position at guard.
“Spencer’s been really solid — been really pleased with his consistency,” Lynn said.
Rivers said the team noticed Pulley’s ability to be at the heart of the offensive line almost immediately last season, and that’s carried over.
“I have a great comfort level with Spencer,” Rivers said. “That’s where he played in college, his whole time down there at [Vanderbilt]. …I have good feel with him from a snap standpoint, a communication standpoint. He played a lot for us last year at guard, so he’s used to being in there with us.
“He was a guy we found out early on last year, this time of year. It was like ‘Who is this Pulley guy?’ …It just wasn’t too big for him right off the bat.”
After the rookie minicamp, for most of the Charger rookies, the OTAs are a chance to show their veteran teammates and coaches that the jump to the NFL will be a manageable one.
While the inundation can be head-spinning — the words used by fourth-round pick Rayshawn Jenkins to describe it — early in the offseason workouts, rookies can use the time to show off their instincts and smarts while absorbing a new system.
However, the team’s top rookie, wide receiver Mike Williams, hasn’t had that chance, as back stiffness has kept him off the field for the entirety of OTAs. The hope, Lynn said, is that Williams will be able to get on the field either in the final set of OTAs beginning Tuesday or during minicamp the following week.
While Williams has sat, joining Dontrelle Inman, Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams and Allen as receivers who have missed at least some of the offseason program, unheralded guys like Geremy Davis and Jamaal Jones have benefited by getting a lot of reps with Rivers and the starters.
The team’s had success with receivers like Davis and Jones before (for example, Williams and Inman), and time with Rivers could thrust them into a real role on the team come training camp.
And with Williams falling behind, a return to the field in the next two weeks could begin the catch-up process.
“This is valuable time, especially at his position,” Rivers said.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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