Last season, the San Diego Chargers had a logjam at outside linebacker with so much talent that there wasn’t not enough playing time to go around. This season, due to injuries and changes made in free agency, the outside linebacker position is completely different and clearly lacks the depth it had last season.
The landscape of the outside linebacker position changed drastically when 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram went down with a torn ACL on the second day of OTAs. The Chargers were counting on Ingram to lead the Bolts’ pass rush after losing Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes in free agency. In emergency, the Chargers signed Dwight Freeney and will be relying heavily on their free agent acquisition to bring the heat this upcoming season.
Defensive coordinator John Pagano plans on using Freeney as a hybrid outside linebacker and defensive end to put him in the best situations to succeed. Though he only notched five sacks last season in his first year in the 3-4 with the Indianapolis Colts, he still managed to generate 33 QB hurries and 9 QB hits, so he should be fairly effective no matter what scheme he’s placed in. More concerning though is his age. At 33-years-old, Freeney’s effectiveness could rapidly decline, and he might not be an every-down player anymore. However, at the very least, when he is on the field, he will draw attention away from the other players rushing the passer.
Starting opposite Freeney will be 31-year-old Jarret Johnson. Johnson is by no means a pass rusher, but has been a solid run defender throughout his career. With much change happening at the position, he will bring some familiarity.
Likely rotating in for Johnson on passing downs will be former first-round pick Larry English. Buried on the depth chart last season, English will have a great opportunity to resurrect his career and will likely play a key role in 2013 with Ingram out. Injuries have certainly derailed his young career and stunted his development to this point, but even when he’s seen the field, he still hasn’t generated much disruption. English needs to step up and play like the former first-rounder he is.
Also in the mix are sixth-round rookie Tourek Williams and free agent-pickup Thomas Keiser. Both could provide solid depth for the team, but neither will be more than situational players with upside at this point.
Pagano will definitely need to get creative in how he uses Freeney, while English needs to stay healthy and step it up. The outside linebackers in the Chargers’ 3-4 are the primary source of the pass rush, and having an aging Freeney as the only proven guy is a little worrisome. Luckily, the Chargers have a young, solid defensive line that can also generate pass rush and pull some of the attention away from the outside linebackers.