Justin Herbert feels ‘miles ahead’; defense beefed up

Quarterback Justin Herbert throws during drills at a Chargers practice Monday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Chargers moved into the next phase of their offseason program Monday with players working on the field in shorts and helmets.

The voluntary sessions will continue over the next few weeks before culminating with mandatory minicamp June 14-15.

Here are the highlights from the training facility in Costa Mesa:

Not starting from square one: Justin Herbert was good enough during his second season to make the Pro Bowl.

Now, he has an added advantage: working in the same offense with the same coordinator (Joe Lombardi) and position coach (Shane Day) in back-to-back years, the sort of familiarity Herbert has not experienced much going back to his days at Oregon.

“The biggest thing is understanding that we’re miles ahead of where we were last year,” Herbert said. “Last year, we were focused on calling the right plays in the huddle and making sure everyone was lined up in the huddle and getting lined up on the field.”

The Chargers finished last season fourth in total yards and fifth in points, despite losing both starters on the right side of their offensive line early on. Herbert was among the top three quarterbacks in passing yards, touchdown passes and adjusted quarterback rating.

The expectations for this season grow from there.

Entering his second season, coach Brandon Staley said he has a much better sense of who the Chargers are and what the organization is about. He said “the pace is better” with everyone being more familiar with the operation.

“You’re not having to explain everything for the first time to everybody every single day,” Staley said. “I think that’s a big advantage for us. Now we’re able to focus on the little things in football that make a big difference. ”

Tillery still in prove-it mode: Among the most prominent players not on the field during the portion of practice open to the media were edge rusher Joey Bosa, cornerback JC Jackson, running back Austin Ekeler, wide receiver Mike Williams and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

The absence of Tillery was particularly notable in that unlike the other four, his position on the team is hardly solidified.

A first-round pick (No. 28 overall) in 2019, Tillery started 15 games last season and has shown promise, totaling 9½ career sacks. But he has lacked consistency and finds himself part of a deep position group.

“He’s gonna fit into that competition of guys that’s going to have to earn a role,” Staley said. “During the springtime and during training camp, all those guys are going to have to really duke it out to establish themselves.”

This offseason, the Chargers first signed interior linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to be starters. They then re-signed Christian Covington, who was a rotational piece last year, before drafting Otito Ogbonnia out of UCLA in the fifth round. Last week, the Chargers picked up Morgan Fox, another veteran free agent with experience in Staley’s system.

Tillery will be competing with that group, plus a handful of other returning players including Breiden Fehoko and Joe Gaziano.

It was only 10 months ago, during training camp, that Staley spoke of Tillery in terms of being more of an established player. Now, Tillery is fighting for time. Earlier this month, the Chargers declined to pick up the fifth-year option of his rookie contract.

“There’s a bunch of guys that are trying to prove themselves to earn their way in the league,” Staley said. “I would put him in that category.”

Fox on the run: Staley spoke glowingly of Fox’s toughness and physicality and also mentioned his versatility and discipline.

The two spent the 2020 season together when Staley was the Rams’ defensive coordinator.

That year, Fox finished with half of his 12 career sacks and also had a personal-best nine quarterback hits. Staley made a point to mention Fox’s ability to get pressure from the inside.

“Wherever he’s been,” Staley said, “whether it was high school, college or the NFL, he has rushed the passer at a high level.”

Rookie safety JT Woods participates in drills during a Chargers practice Monday.

Rookie safety JT Woods participates in drills during a Chargers practice Monday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

There’s depth deep too: Like their defensive front, the Chargers have bolstered their secondary. They signed Jackson and Bryce Callahan, a pair of free-agent corners, and drafted Ja’Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard in the later rounds.

With their second pick in April, they selected safety JT Woods of Baylor in the third round.

Jackson will be the No. 1 corner, playing opposite Asante Samuel Jr. Staley called Callahan “one of the top slot corners,” his presence allowing the Chargers to keep Samuel on the outside.

Staley said Samuel will continue to cross-train inside, giving the Chargers increased flexibility and insurance against injury.

All of which leaves returning starter Michael Davis competing for playing time. Davis, entering the second year of a three-year deal worth up to $ 25.2 million, has started 40 games over the last three seasons.

“We’ve acquired a lot of depth in order to make it a competition,” Staley said. “That’s what we were after really in all phases of our team, but I think specifically on defense… Mike is going to be right in the middle of that competition.”

James’ ever-expanding role: The benefits of a deeper secondary include the Chargers’ hope to fully unleash safety Derwin James Jr., who possesses a skill set that allows him to line up all over the field.

For example, if Woods, who is long and athletic, can cover the deep part of an NFL field, James would have more freedom to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

“What we’ve done is we’ve surrounded him with a lot more depth and talent so that all of his talents will shine even brighter than they did last season,” Staley said. “All he needs to do is continue to do what he always does because he’s one of the special players in the league.”

James debuted his new No. 3 jersey Monday, joking that he’s now lighter after wearing No. 33 his first four years.

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr.  (3) participates in drills Monday.

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. wore his new jersey number (3) for the first time during practice Monday. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

On the mend: Edge rusher Khalil Mack was on the field but not participating in individual drills as he continues to come back from a foot injury that ended his season after seven games.

Staley said Mack probably could go full speed but indicated the team is choosing to be cautious.

Linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr., rehabilitating from ankle surgery, was not on the field. Staley said the timeline regarding Murray “is for him to be full speed for training camp.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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