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  • After an injury-riddled rookie year, the seventh pick of the 2017 draft is showing signs of breaking out—and just in time as the Chargers look for a red-zone force. Plus, Derwin James tries to get up to speed, and rookies ready to step up in the run D
By Robert Klemko
August 16, 2018

WHO: Los Angeles Chargers
WHERE: Irvine, Calif.
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 15
HOW: Flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles

In April, general manager Tom Telesco was looking at a defense that finished third in points allowed, under the guidance of a former head coach (Gus Bradley) who will likely be a head coach again sooner rather than later. Telesco decided to spend his first four draft picks on an already great unit.

On a Wednesday in August, Telesco’s head coach, Anthony Lynn, decided to give almost all of his veteran starters the day off—meaning no Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon, Melvin Ingram, etc. That left the second-string offense and defense to take first-team reps in an 11-on-11 scrimmage that featured only a handful of first-teamers. From this unlikely confluence of events emerged a showcase of the Chargers’ young, high-profile talent. It was Bradley’s young defense, led by first-round safety Derwin James, versus an offense headlined by receiver Mike Williams, last year’s No. 7 overall pick who missed big chunks of the 2017 season due to knee and lower back injuries.

The winner (by TKO): Williams.

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With Cardale Jones throwing the football and the big, athletic James roaming the defensive backfield, Williams continued what’s been an impressive training camp with an acrobatic catch down the left sideline and a red-zone touchdown grab across the middle. He looks, fluid, smart, fast, and above all, healthy. That’s a big deal for the Chargers, who find themselves short on proven red-zone targets with tight end Hunter Henry out with an ACL injury. At 6' 3", 220 pounds, Williams looks the part of an effective red-zone weapon and someone who will chew up a lot of targets if he can stay on the field long enough to benefit from Keenan Allen’s presence on the other side.

As for the rookie first-rounder, James, there was room for improvement. He’s been getting work at both safety positions as Bradley tries to identify where he can thrive. Wednesday should have been his showcase, but even against Jones and the twos James was late-arriving to a handful of targets and failed to make a splash play over two hours of work. Athletically, there’s no question James was deserving of the 17th overall pick, but he looks like a player who might take a while to adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Luckily, the Chargers don’t desperately need him to contribute at the moment; the secondary is arguably the best and deepest unit on the roster.

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OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT!: I didn’t realize the Chargers and Rams were living so close to one another this summer. With the Rams camping at UC-Irvine and the Chargers working at the Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, it takes about 10 minutes to drive from one to the other around lunchtime. That’s a great thing for visiting sports writers (especially when a head coach unexpectedly gives his veterans the day off).

STORYLINE TO WATCH: The Chargers badly wanted to get better against the run, hence the early draft picks spent on a linebacker (Uchenna Nwosu) and a defensive tackle (Justin Jones). I'll be watching to see what sort of impact that pair plus fourth-rounder Kyzir White, a collegiate safety converting to linebacker, have during their preseason matchup with Seattle. Ditto for Mike Williams, who should crawl up fantasy draft boards once folks realize he’s in line for some serious targets in 2018, and appears ready to justify his draft position.

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TOP POSITION BATTLE: With Antonio Gates’s (presumed) retirement and Hunter Henry’s injury, some meaningful snaps at tight end are bound to go to an unknown. Chargers fans should know what they’re getting in presumptive starter Virgil Green—the run-blocking tight end started every game last season in Denver and caught 14 passes. There’s a window here for Braedon Bowman or Sean Culkin to make a name for himself.

OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: This is my fifth season covering the NFL and I’ve never heard of so many veterans getting the day off at once. I guess this is one solution to the problem of preseason injuries. How’d that line from The Wire go? “You cannot lose if you do not play.”

PARTING THOUGHTS: 10-6. Mike Williams convinced me. This will be a quietly strong division in 2018, but the Chargers have the goods to beat anybody in the AFC West twice.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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