Chargers surprise with first-round NFL draft pick to protect Justin Herbert

Boston College offensive guard Zion Johnson, left, and Roger Goodell.
Boston College’s Zion Johnson, left, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hold a Chargers jersey after the guard was picked in the first round of the NFL draft.
(Steve Luciano / Associated Press)

The Chargers drafted their starters at quarterback and left tackle in the first round of the NFL draft in 2020 and ’21, respectively, both Justin Herbert and Rashawn Slater earning Pro Bowl honors last season.

On Thursday, they think they drafted another big-time starter — even if the fanfare was a little more muted.

“Guards are people, too, right?” general manager Tom Telesco said, smiling. “I know it’s not the sexiest pick in the world.”


Not sexy, no, but significant, the Chargers selecting Boston College’s Zion Johnson at No. 17.

Johnson is expected to take over as the starter at right guard as the team continues to bolster its offensive front for playmakers such as Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

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April 28, 2022

“These guys can’t operate and do their jobs without a rock-solid offensive line,” Telesco said. “As much as this pick is to protect our quarterback, which is a big part of it, it’s also to facilitate everybody else.”

The Chargers began their rebuild upfront last offseason when they signed center Corey Linsley and guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi in free agency before drafting Slater at No. 13.

Johnson will now join Slater, Feiler and Linsley as starters, with Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins the current options at right tackle. Norton started 15 games there last year after Bryan Bulaga was lost to injury.

“If he does what we think he can do,” Telesco said of Johnson, “he’s going to play 900 to 1,000 snaps for us his rookie year.”


Johnson, 22, began his college career at non-scholarship Davidson, where he spent two years before transferring to Boston College. In three seasons with the Eagles, his NFL potential blossomed.

Boston College offensive lineman Zion Johnson  poses for a photo.
Boston College’s Zion Johnson (77) can help solidify the right side of the Chargers’ offensive line.
(Mary Schwalm / Associated Press)

Coming out of high school in Maryland, Johnson had played only two years of football. His primary sport to that point had been golf.

“A lot of guys, you ask them, ‘When you were in high school, did you see yourself here now?’” Johnson said. “For me, honestly, no.”

It wasn’t until he began having success at Boston College that Johnson said he considered the NFL to be a possibility.

He played left guard during his first and third seasons with the Eagles and was the team’s starting left tackle in 2020. He also played some center at the Senior Bowl.


At 6 foot 3, 314 pounds, Johnson is recognized for his stout lower body and ability to deliver blows and absorb contact. Pro Football Focus’ draft guide described him as “lab-built.”

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April 25, 2022

“He’s tough,” Telesco said. “He’s durable. He’s smart.”

Asked to assess what he’ll bring to the Chargers, Johnson said: “The No. 1 thing I pride myself on is the mental part of the game, just seeing the defense and knowing your assignment on every play and being able to help out the offensive linemen around you. The secondary thing is my physicality.”

Johnson said he considered entering the NFL draft last year but opted to return to Boston College for a super senior season. Becoming a first-round pick 12 months later validated that decision.

“I think it helped me a lot.” Johnson said. “I learned a lot. My body developed a lot. I put on 12 to 15 pounds. It was really my first year being in an offense for two years consecutively, so I started to become a master of our scheme and I started to understand everything. That really helped me in terms of processing.”

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April 28, 2022

Telesco, citing Johnson’s athletic ability, said he could eventually play center in the NFL. But, for now, he projects as the Chargers’ starting right guard for the foreseeable future.

Telesco said he does not anticipate Johnson having any issues moving from the left side of the line.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy,” Telesco said. “He’ll have to make a little transition there. But I’m not worried about it.”


After using most of their free-agent money to bolster their defense, the Chargers were in position to address the offense in Round 1.

Their next selection is scheduled to come midway through the third round Friday, at No. 79 overall. They traded their second-round pick in March in the deal to acquire edge rusher Khalil Mack.

The NFL is going all out for the 2022 draft in Las Vegas, considering it to be a dry run to the Sin City Super Bowl in early 2024.

April 28, 2022

After the second and third rounds Friday, the draft concludes with four more rounds Saturday. The Chargers have eight selections on that final day.

Among their positional needs that remain are wide receiver, cornerback, defensive lineman, edge rusher, linebacker and running back.

In non-draft news, the Chargers will play at Kansas City on Sept. 15, the Thursday night of Week 2, the NFL announced.

The rivalry between the Chargers and Chiefs has become a marquee showdown over the past two years because of the presence of Herbert. He and Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes already have produced great theater.


The NFL will announce its full schedule May 12.

6 feet 3, 312 pounds, Boston College, Round 1, Pick 17

Notable: Johnson spent two years at Davidson before moving on to Boston College, where he played for three seasons.

Last season: Johnson returned to college for a super-senior season and elevated his draft stock with an impressive showing.

Why the Chargers drafted him: The Chargers’ rebuild of their offensive line continued with the addition of Johnson, a versatile piece who slots in as their starter at right guard. They were looking to upgrade the right side of the line after beefing up the left side last offseason. With his addition, the Chargers have Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins left to compete for the starting right tackle spot.