Chargers coach Brandon Staley, linebacker Khalil Mack were a dynamic duo before
The remaking of the Chargers defense took its most tangible step forward yet Wednesday when Khalil Mack was introduced at a news conference.
The Chargers traded last week for the three-time All-Pro edge rusher, bringing him in to help upgrade a unit that was the team’s shortcoming last season.
They also signed three young veteran defenders in free agency: cornerback J.C. Jackson and interior linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. That trio will speak over the next two days.
Mack was first to go. Here are the highlights of the day from the Chargers’ Costa Mesa training facility:
Hard-hitter in more ways than one: The Chargers are looking for Mack to make an impact that can be accurately described as profound. Head coach Brandon Staley has seen it before.
Rumors had the Broncos pursuing quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but Russell Wilson was their target all along and keeping that a secret enabled Denver to complete the deal with Seattle.
Staley was coaching the outside linebackers in Chicago when the Bears acquired Mack from Oakland just before the start of the 2018 season.
“When he got to Chicago, our entire team changed,” Staley said. “We were a top-10 defense. … When he got there, we became the No. 1 defense. We had a good defense. When he came, we became the best defense.”
Staley explained that Mack will affect the Chargers both on and off the field, saying he can change cultures as much as he can games “because of who he is on a day-to-day basis.”
“He’s not one of these guys that’s going to tell you something,” Staley said. “He’s going to show you. And you feel that right away.”
Indeed, Mack called himself “an action guy” and “not a talker.” Staley suggested the Chargers’ lacked enough of that type of presence on defense last season.
It was notable that Staley also referenced his desire to pair Mack with safety Derwin James Jr., the widely acknowledged heart of the defense. This is a partnership upon which the Chargers will lean in 2022.
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Sacks and a whole lot more: On the field, Staley said Mack’s impact should be easy to spot. He talked about his consistency, durability and toughness.
“He also brings a style of play that we really believe in,” Staley said. “I don’t think we had enough of it [in 2021]. Not even close.”
The Chargers struggled last season particularly against the run and on third down. They gave up an average of 138.9 yards on the ground, one the worst single-season performances in franchise history.
Their season — and playoff chances — ended in the most fitting of ways when they failed to prevent Las Vegas from converting on a third-down run in overtime in Week 18 and lost on the field goal that followed.
Staley said Mack’s 76.5 career sacks tell only part of story of how Mack impacts offenses, which is especially important for the Chargers.
“Complete defender because he can do everything,” Staley said. “He can dominate the edge in the run game, which is where it starts. He’s athletic on his feet to be able to run and catch anybody.”
Staley explained that the ability of edge rushers to move is vital in today’s NFL with “the ball on the perimeter as much as it is.” This was another area where the 2021 Chargers no doubt lacked.
To bolster their sometimes leaky defense, the Chargers agreed to terms with corner J.C. Jackson and linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson.
A player-coach reunion: Mack almost certainly wouldn’t be a Charger without Staley also being here.
Their relationship is rooted in the long hours they spent together after Mack joined the Bears in early September 2018. Following the trade, Mack had barely a week to prepare for Chicago’s opener against Green Bay.
“He made it easy,” Mack said. “You could see his passion through it, understanding he knew how much I wanted to get out there for that first game, and we were able to do it.”
Against the Packers, Mack had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception, one he returned 27 yards for a touchdown. How’s that for instant impact?
The time together for Mack and Staley was brief, Staley leaving after the ’18 season to join Vic Fangio’s staff in Denver.
“It was bittersweet in Chicago,” Staley said. “It was an amazing year. All these great things are happening. But then it was like, ‘Man, that didn’t last long enough.’ To be able to go do it again, is very special.”
Healthy and motivated: Mack said his surgically repaired foot is “100%, good to go, whatever you want to hear.” He missed the final 10 games last season after being injured in late October.
Before going down, Mack had six sacks, which represented a single-season career-best pace. He hasn’t reached double figures in sacks since that ’18 season when he finished with 12½.
Mack, 31, suggested he has heard rumblings about his fading production. He dismissed the notion by saying, “I’ll bet on myself any day.”
“If people are saying that, then they certainly don’t know him at all,” Staley said. “And if they are saying that, then good luck to them. Because you’ll see. You’ll see.”
Added Mack: “It’s going to be fun. I know ya’ll going to enjoy watching it for sure.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars have the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, which will be held April 28-30 in Las Vegas.
More defensive help on the way: The roster rebuild will continue, Staley saying the work is far from complete. Even with the addition of Jackson, he said the search for defensive backs won’t stop.
As for the defensive front, Staley said there would be more to come.
“We’re much closer to where we need to be,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But we’re much closer. … It’s about depth in this league.”
Specialist added: The Chargers signed long snapper Josh Harris to a contract that guarantees him $1.92 million. He spent the last 10 seasons with Atlanta and made the Pro Bowl in 2021.
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