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Adjusting to new coaching staff among biggest training camp questions for Chargers

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws during organized team activities.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws during organized team activities on June 1 in Costa Mesa.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Brandon Staley has spent his first six months as Chargers head coach building relationships, one of the most often mentioned principles of his program.

Another pillar he references frequently is competition, and that begins Wednesday when the team opens its first training camp under its new boss.

The Chargers will conduct 17 practices, 16 of which will be open to the public at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa. The 17th will be at SoFi Stadium as part of a season ticket fan festival Aug. 8.

The final two days of camp — Aug. 19-20 — will feature joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers.

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Under Staley and a new staff — only two assistants remain from last season — the Chargers are transforming both the offense and the defense in an attempt to better take advantage of a roster considered plenty talented.

They’ve missed the postseason in consecutive years but did finish 2020 with four consecutive victories, a consolation prize that ultimately was no consolation at all given all the changes that followed.

As the Chargers begin writing a new story in 2021, here are six key questions that need to be answered:

The Chargers are welcoming fans back to training camp practices this year and have announced dates fans can attend and how to gain entry.

Will the offensive line be good enough?

The Chargers have struggled with injuries and inconsistency up-front the last two seasons, forcing general manager Tom Telesco to again attempt to rebuild his offensive line.

That attempt a year ago failed when veteran additions Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner both suffered injuries that lingered. Bulaga returns at right tackle, but Turner was released and now plays for Pittsburgh.

Telesco signed All-Pro Corey Linsley at center and veterans Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi to play guard. He then invested the No. 13 overall pick in Rashawn Slater as a potential long-term answer at left tackle.

How this group gels and how Slater acclimates to the NFL will play significant roles in the team’s success.

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Will Joe Lombardi’s second stint as offensive coordinator go better than his first?

Along with his famous last name — he is the grandson of Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi — Joe brings a wealth of experience that includes 15 years an an NFL assistant.

But his only previous time as an offensive coordinator ended prematurely in October 2015 when he was fired seven games into his second season with Detroit.

The Lions and then-quarterback Matthew Stafford struggled to adopt to a scheme built on precision and timing. In a similar system in New Orleans, Drew Brees flourished under Lombardi, who was Brees’ position coach.

Along with his abundant physical skills, Justin Herbert is known for his smarts and quick-learning ability. Although there figure to be bumps, Herbert should have at least a Brees-like chance of eventually commanding the new offense.

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Can the two big-time defensive stars stay healthy?

Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa at practice.
Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa during practice on June 16 in Costa Mesa.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Safety Derwin James is entering his fourth season. Yet, he and edge rusher Joey Bosa — they are the team’s most dynamic, impactful defenders — still have appeared in only 12 NFL games together.

James has missed 27 games over the last two years because of injuries suffered in August. Bosa was hurt in training camp in 2018 and sustained multiple injuries last season, including a pair of late concussions.

Getting James and Bosa to the Sept. 12 season opener healthy will be among the Chargers’ main training-camp goals. Both possess All-Pro capabilities that can’t be displayed in street clothes.

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Can the players on defense master the new scheme?

Along with moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Chargers are adopting a defense that will attempt to exploit matchups but also emphasize communication, before and after the snap.

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. played in a similar system in Denver and characterized the difference for his teammates now learning the defense as “night and day.”

Linebacker Drue Tranquill said “the communication element is a little more difficult than our previous defense,” an indication of just how important this training camp and preseason will be for the transition.

Justin Herbert is planning to devote a significant amount of time studying new coach Brandon Staley’s offense ahead of the start of training camp.

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Will the special teams rebound?

As bad as the Chargers were at times during their 7-9 finish a year ago, no aspect of the operation failed as spectacularly as the special teams did. Just getting 11 players on the field for a punt was a challenge at times.

Finding free agents capable of contributing in the kicking game — see cornerback Ryan Smith and linebacker Kyler Fackrell — was part of Telesco’s roster rebuild.

And, to varying degrees, the kicking, punting and long-snapping jobs all are open competitions entering August.

Can Slater emerge at left tackle?

The Chargers no doubt have expectations for second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr. and third-rounders Josh Palmer and Tre’ McKitty. Each should contribute in 2021.

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But Slater was drafted with the idea that he’d be ready to start immediately. Having him still available at No. 13 was considered a bit of grand fortune.

Slater sat out the 2020 season at Northwestern because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His return to the field starting Wednesday instantly becomes a daily story line.


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