Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry are healthy and ready to dominate for Chargers
One return was about as subtle as a growling 6-foot-5, 280-pound rip and rush off the edge.
Chargers defensive line coach Giff Smith said he noticed Joey Bosa — the real Joey Bosa — exactly one play into offseason workouts this spring.
“His first drill of individual,” Smith recalled, smiling. “You’re like, ‘Oh, God dog, now I know what he’s talking about.’ I missed him, man.”
The other return required close observation of the whole package, which is fitting since the whole package is what Hunter Henry aspires to be.
Coach Anthony Lynn said he detected something slightly different about his tight end early in training camp.
“Hunter is really cool,” Lynn said. “Even when he sweats, he never lets you know that he’s sweating. I can tell, though, that he’s happy to be back.”
Technically, they aren’t new pieces, although they missed most of last season, but more renewed pieces, Bosa and Henry returning healthy and ready to bolster the Chargers — a pair of ends, one on each side of the line of scrimmage.
Bosa was sidelined the first nine games last year because of a foot injury and, when he finally made it back, said he felt so unlike himself that he now prefers to forget the whole experience.
Henry suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that required surgery and a season’s worth of rehabilitation before he returned to play 14 snaps in the Chargers’ final game.
Both are now whole.
“In the spring, he was so much faster, so much more explosive,” Smith said of Bosa. “There is definitely a physical difference between last year and this year. It’s that obvious.”
The Chargers defense lost a significant piece in August when All-Pro safety Derwin James suffered a stress fracture in his foot. Not long before the injury, James had talked about his desire to be an enforcer this season.
Bosa now can assume that role, if he chooses, the fourth-year defensive end pronouncing himself to be ahead physically of where he was before he got hurt last August.
In the offseason, Bosa rededicated himself to working on his hand technique. He returned to Ohio State for a few days to train with his college position coach, Larry Johnson.
He spent less time building brute strength and more time swatting at blocking bags and swiveling his hips past imaginary defenders.
“It’s what I enjoy,” Bosa said. “People always ask me if I love football. I say I don’t love the sport of football in the sense that I’m going to go home and watch it. But I love football in the sense of pass rush and technique.”
On film, he dissects everything he does, in games and practices. He studies Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Khalil Mack and others.
Bosa said his game — technique-wise — never has been more advanced than it is today. He hasn’t necessarily perfected the art of unleashing his hands from what’s called “combat position,” but nearly has mastered it.
“It really helps your room because you’ve got an example to show younger guys,” Smith said. “‘Hey, this is where we’re trying to get to.’ You wish they all could do it. But it’s kind of like raising a kid. You can tell ’em. But sooner or later, you’re going to have to hold ’em accountable.”
An intact Bosa restores the Chargers’ potent look up front. He and edge rusher Melvin Ingram figure to be capable of bringing as much pressure as any defense.
Inside, the Chargers have veterans such as Brandon Mebane and Damion Square, along with second-year tackle Justin Jones and first-round pick Jerry Tillery, the depth as promising as the potential.
“The best pass-rushing teams have balance on both sides,” Smith said. “When you have [Nos.] 54 [Ingram] and 97 [Bosa], it causes stress. They can only chip [block] one of them. They can only slide the center to one of them.
“We’re saying, ‘Pick your poison. Which one do you want to have one-on-one?’ And we’re good with it. Having that balance back … we’re excited about where we’re progressing.”
The Chargers defense appears to be more complete. So too does Henry, whose commitment to being an every-down tight end resulted in him asking to take passing plays off during the offseason program.
He explained to his position coach, Rip Scherer, that if the Chargers were intent on limiting the reps of their veterans for the sake of preservation, he’d prefer to focus on run blocking rather than pass catching.
“Unlike a lot of tight ends these days, he wants to be an every-play tight end,” Scherer said. “A lot of guys want to be just receivers and they can’t block me or won’t block me. That’s not Hunter.”
Henry blocked extensively in college at Arkansas, which back then was operating a pro-style system that ran before it passed. Growing up, he tried to emulate Jason Witten, a player Pro Football Focus once labeled the NFL’s “most complete tight end.”
Fellow Charger Sean Culkin likened Henry to the queen on a chess board because “you can do everything with him.” Henry figures to be a primary third-down and red-zone target running the seams for quarterback Philip Rivers.
He caught 12 touchdown passes over two seasons before his ACL ripped during a practice in May 2018. The Chargers were then forced to bring back franchise icon Antonio Gates.
“I was excited to kind of be the guy, you know,” Henry said. “I was excited to continue to work with Phil … I was really excited for the year. To have it taken away so early was really difficult.”
Now Henry is back, and Rivers said it feels as if he never was gone. That’s how quickly the two were able to reconnect. Rivers and Henry even worked out together this summer in Florida when both were staying there.
He is another weapon at the veteran quarterback’s disposal on a team expected to contend in the AFC.
“He’s another guy that can ball,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “I’ll still get my double-teams. But now we have another threat that’s going to be open 90% of the time, and he always catches the ball. Hunter’s great.”
The Chargers lost wide receiver Tyrell Williams to Oakland through free agency and spent all of training camp without Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon.
But with the return of Henry, Rivers has regained something that was missing in 2018 — something reliable and complete.
“Shoot, we could be really good, especially if we put our mind to it every week and lock in,” Henry said.
“When you’re spread out on offense, it’s hard to defend. It makes things easier on all of us. It’s going to be fun.”
At least for two Chargers, it has to be more fun than all of last year.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.