Chargers believe they’re covered with Adrian Phillips at safety in place of Derwin James
The Chargers’ secondary famously has developed into a collection of mix-and-match pieces, versatility one of the group’s greatest assets.
So what happens now that the least replaceable piece of all needs replacing?
For starters, there’s Adrian Phillips, who becomes the starter at strong safety in the crater-like absence of Derwin James, who suffered a stress fracture in his right foot last week and is scheduled to have surgery Thursday.
“I’m not stepping into this position to be anything that Derwin was,” Phillips said Tuesday. “I’ve played a lot of snaps in my career. I played a whole bunch of snaps last year. We got to the playoffs, and we were able to make a lot of plays.
“So it’s not necessarily thinking of replacing Derwin. It’s, ‘Hey, this is a little bump in the road. We gotta fix it … and keep it moving.’ When you start thinking you’re replacing somebody or you have to live up to what somebody else has done, that’s when all the bad stuff starts to happen.”
James lined up all over the field as a rookie — from along the neutral zone to the deepest depths of the secondary. He played 1,027 snaps, and no Charger played more. He was an All-Pro and a starter in the Pro Bowl and set the franchise single-season tackle record for a rookie.
No one player will do all that again, which is why the Chargers will lean on their versatility and try to make up James’ production by deploying a variety of pieces and packages.
Although the Chargers lost 19-17 to the Saints during a preseason game Sunday, Jerry Tillery made his debut and recorded a quick sack.
“Last year it was seven [defensive backs],” Phillips said. “Who knows what it may be this year? You never know. But we got faith in our coaching staff, and they got faith in us to go out there and do what we do.”
By the end of the 2018 season, the Chargers had been so decimated by injuries at linebacker that they were starting seven members of their secondary. The plan worked in a playoff victory at Baltimore but failed a week later in New England.
Now, they have Phillips to replace James in their base defense and players such as Rayshawn Jenkins, Jaylen Watkins and Desmond King who can play multiple positions, depending on scheme. Jenkins is currently starting at free safety, coach Anthony Lynn saying he’d rather leave Jenkins there. But, if necessary, Jenkins could move closer to the line of scrimmage, a position with which he is familiar.
Phillips said the loss of James, though critical, is mitigated in part because of the type of defensive backs the Chargers covet and develop. Starting early in the offseason program, position flexibility has remained a theme.
“Those are the type of guys they want,” Phillips said. “Those are the type of players they seek, guys that can play many different positions. So when one of your brothers falls like that, you can throw somebody in there and keep the whole thing moving.”
James is expected to be sidelined three to four months. Based on that projection, the earliest he could return would be during the Chargers’ Week 12 bye.
“Seeing him going through something like that … you don’t want that for him, especially coming off a high rookie campaign,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ versatility is such that he plays linebacker when the Chargers go to their dime defense. That won’t change, meaning someone — Watkins is a prime candidate — will have to take over at strong safety on those snaps. Watkins is 12 months removed from tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that forced him to miss last season. He returned to game action Sunday, exactly a year to the date of the tear.
“I’m pretty sure my reps at strong [safety] will increase,” Watkins said. “But they do a good job of cross-training a lot of us. Our defense is pretty symmetrical. A lot of us can be put in different spots and play well.”
Running back Troymaine Pope is having good camp with Chargers, but he’s had good summers before and still ended up cut.
The Chargers’ secondary also includes second-round pick Nasir Adderley, a free safety who has missed most of training camp because of a hamstring injury. Among the undrafted rookies the team signed, safety Roderic Teamer has played the most defensive snaps in each of the first two preseason games.
Inman is back
The Chargers are bringing back wide receiver Dontrelle Inman, who was granted his release by New England last week. Now in his sixth season, Inman had 58 catches for 810 yards and four touchdowns for the Chargers in 2016. In October of the next year, they traded him to Chicago for a seventh-round pick. Inman, 30, spent last season with Indianapolis, finishing with 28 receptions for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Long snapper out
Long snapper Mike Windt, the Chargers’ second-longest tenured player, was released. Entering his 10th season, Windt had spent his entire career with the team. Only quarterback Philip Rivers, who is going into his 16th season, has been a Charger longer. The move leaves Cole Mazza as the lone long snapper. He played at Alabama for four years and most recently was in the now-defunct AAF.
Lynn said there’s a chance Rivers, if the quarterback deems it necessary, could play Saturday when the Chargers face Seattle in Carson. Rivers sat out the first two preseason games. … Lynn would not offer an update on Uchenna Nwosu, who injured his left side Sunday against New Orleans. He did not rule out the possibility of the linebacker returning to practice this week.
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