NFL insider notes from Chargers camp: Head coach Brandon Staley placing emphasis on team's health for 2021


COSTA MESA, Calif. — The horn blew 75 minutes into practice on Tuesday and the Los Angeles Chargers lined up for end-of-practice handshakes.

Not a water break. Not a breather. Not some new-age, West Coast team-bonding powwow. That was the end of practice.

First-year head coach Brandon Staley wants to simulate the regular season as much as possible in the Chargers training camp. A typical NFL week has a lighter practice on Wednesday, a ramp-up Thursday and then come down on Friday. So after their scrimmage at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Staley wanted this to be like any other game week.

“What we want to do when we’re in practice is practice full speed where you’re not trying to pace or save yourself,” Staley said. “I think it’s worked well.”

Yes, it’s about players getting the proper amount of reps to prepare for the season. But it’s also making sure — especially with these Chargers — that they get to the season.

“There’s been a huge emphasis as far as getting us healthy to the season,” running back Austin Ekeler said after practice. “There’s been a lot of activation time as far as what we’re doing with the team, stretching, even before we start stretching and a lot of recovery time after. Even the volume of practice, as long as he feels we’re getting the right type of practice, then he’s been cutting down our reps and really taking care of our bodies. Which we as players obviously love.

“And we feel like we’re getting the work in too, which is the most important thing. You can cut down reps but you don’t want to take away from actually getting better as a team.”

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Talent hasn’t been an issue with the Chargers in years. The injury bug seems to bite the Chargers more than any other team on a consistent year-to-year basis.

In 2016, the Chargers began the season with 15 players on injured reserve. In 2017, their first- and second-round picks began the year on IR. Hunter Henry tore his ACL during OTAs in 2018, and in training camp Jason Verrett tore his Achilles. The next year, Derwin James (foot) missed more than half the season following his first-team All-Pro rookie season. And then last year the Chargers missed James (knee) all season, Ekeler (knee/hamstring) for half the year and had their Week 1 starting quarterback have to sit out due to a punctured lung.

It didn’t take Staley being the defensive coordinator of the neighboring Rams last season to know this was a franchise in desperate need of an injury course-correction.

Staley hired Anthony Lomando to spearhead the team’s sports performance department, elevated Jonathan Brooks to the head strength and conditioning position and created more synergy among athletic training, strength and conditioning and diet and nutrition.

“Bringing all three of those phases of sports performance with coaching and making sure we track everything we do,” Staley says. “And talking to players about the way we install, the way we phase practice in, acclimation, ramp up, how many reps guys are getting, activation, stretching, our recovery, lift schedule. There’s so much that goes into it. We feel our way has gotten off to a good start. Our players have received what we’re doing at a high level because they’ve had a lot of input in it. Going back to the spring, we really tag teamed with them to make this schedule and it’s working well so far.”

Derwin James CPOY?

Talking with folks in Chargers camp, I came away convinced that they are convinced James will win Comeback Player of the Year.

We haven’t seen James on the field since the end of the 2019 season, but he looks every bit the part of an All Pro safety. Ekeler told me James is impressively strong, and Staley explained just how important James is to what he wants to do on defense.

“Derwin’s a rare, rare guy. A rare competitor, rare person, rare leader,” Staley says. “He can play anywhere. He plays safety, plays it well, plays in the deep part of the field, an outstanding open field tackler, can play man-to-man in the slot, he plays nickel, he plays Money, he can rush the passer, he’s our signal caller.

“He’s one of these guys where everybody in our organization – I mean everybody – responds to. He’s got an amazing way about him and he’s had an incredible camp so far. He’s just at the beginning because he’s learning how this defense can work for him. This is becoming his defense and that’s what we’re after. That’s what we want, because he’s capable of taking us a long way.”

Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert knows the most dangerous quarterbacks are the ones who know what’s happening on the other side of the ball. So Staley has been working with him on defensive education throughout camp, as well as the usual fundamentals and situational ball.

Listed at 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds, Herbert is one of the bigger QBs in the league. He also has wheels, though he didn’t use them too much last season. Herbert ranked 14th among QBs with 234 rushing yards on 55 attempts. I asked Staley how he wants to balance Herbert’s unique athletic talents with making sure he stays upright on the field.

“Judicious,” Staley says. “Your legs are a weapon.  But you have to know when to say when. The traffic in this league is a lot different than the traffic in the Pac-12. So I think you learn that quickly and you know that timing of, ‘OK what I’m trying to do in the NFL is scramble for a first down and then I’m either sliding or getting out of bounds. But I’m not going to put myself in harm’s way.’ One of his gifts is to be able to create off schedule and you want that. but I think the great thing about him is you don’t have to tell him twice too often.

“I know he learned a lot last year with the speed of the game and how defenses are going to play you. Each time he goes out there he gets better.”

Who’s calling what?

Remember how Staley is all about game simulation? He even had the Chargers stay in the team hotel the night before the scrimmage so that they wouldn’t get first-game jitters later on. And at the scrimmage, he stayed on the sideline to call the defensive plays and had defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill in the booth like it will be on game days.

Unlike his old boss Sean McVay, who would regularly be spotted during defensive plays by the Gatorade cooler with Jared Goff over the years going over the previous series, Staley plans to have all eyes on the offense when they’re on the field.

Once the series is over, Hill will “rewind” with his defensive coaches on the sidelines and make the proper adjustments. That will leave Staley free to do his head-coaching duties.

“From a game management standpoint that’s going to allow me to turn my focus to the offense and special teams and the game management type of decisions that are happening throughout the game,” Staley says. “The way we have organized our sideline and press box allows me to be where I need to be and who I need to be, and that’s why we did what we did at the stadium. There’s a lot that goes into game day and me being a first-time head coach.”


Wide receivers coach Chris Beatty has been working with Mike Williams since the spring to expand his route tree. Williams’ full potential has never been realized in the pros thanks to the scheme, so the Chargers have been working with the fifth-year receiver on improving his short and intermediate routes and moving him around in the formation to make him less predictable.

Josh Palmer is a guy I had competing for WR4 in my under-the-radar camp battles. Turns out he should have been in WR3 talks. The Chargers love what they’ve seen out of the Volunteer receiver already. He’s climbed the ladder for a couple grabs in camp and has impressed early. Don’t be surprised to see him get burned early and often in the regular season.

Justin Jackson has a stranglehold on RB2. Like his balance with Ekeler, who’s move of a one-cut-and-go type of back compared to Jackson’s phone-booth shiftiness.

Chase Daniel dropped a nice pass into the breadbasket of TE Stephen Anderson during 7-on-7s. CB Kemon Hall had good coverage but the pass was better.

Hall had a great PBU in the end zone during red zone 7-on-7. Daniel’s pass to KJ Hill was a bit weak and Hall got a good hand on it to deflect it away.

Asante Samuel Jr. has been making noise throughout camp. He’s a guy I was slightly surprised to see fall to the second round, and he may have been a steal for Tom Telesco. He was in tight coverage of Keenan Allen in red zone 7-on-7, got the PBU and Allen gathered the ball and spiked it in frustration.


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