COSTA MESA — Last month, Chargers coach Brandon Staley wasn’t concerned about his team’s low vaccination rates because he was confident it would drastically improve before training camp.
The NFL implemented strict COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players, which could cause a competitive disadvantage for teams. At the time of Staley’s confident words, the Chargers had one of the lowest vaccination rates among the 32 teams in the league.
“I would say that these things have a way of working themselves out the closer that you get to competition,” Staley said June 16. “I know that our players are fully aware of what’s at stake.”
The real competition has arrived with the Chargers having their first training camp practice Wednesday at Jack Hammett Sports Complex, and Staley was right about the vaccination rates not being an issue. The Chargers are approaching 90% for their players to be fully vaccinated or in the process of being fully vaccinated. Staley’s entire coaching staff is also vaccinated, which was evident by all of them being on the field during mandatory minicamp.
With vaccination rates becoming an afterthought, the Chargers can focus on positional battles and roster spots during 17 training camp practices, including two scrimmages with the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 19 and 20.
Here are five intriguing storylines to follow during Chargers training camp:
1. HERBERT EXPERIENCE
The Chargers will welcome fans back to Costa Mesa after the pandemic didn’t allow them to watch practices – or attend games at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood – last year.
The team has an open intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 8 at SoFi Stadium, with a concert scheduled before the workout. Fans will be treated to a free show from Orange County-based rock band The Offspring before star quarterback Justin Herbert takes center stage.
This summer will be the first time Chargers fans will get to watch Herbert perform in person in Southern California. Last year, many wanted to see if the first-round pick was the real deal before he embarked on a memorable rookie season that finished with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
The doubt is gone, but Chargers fans will finally get to experience why Herbert is regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
2. NEW OFFENSIVE LINE
The Chargers revamped their offensive line after a disappointing 2020 season, which saw Herbert under constant duress. But the unit will need to jell quickly with four new projected starters.
First-round selection Rashawn Slater, who signed his rookie deal Tuesday, is expected to start at left tackle, but will have plenty to learn on the fly.
Free-agent additions Matt Feiler and Corey Linsley will command offensive guard and center, respectively. Feiler will likely line up at left guard after a productive season at the position with the Pittsburgh Steelers last season. Linsley was named a First-Team All-Pro at center last year with the Green Bay Packers.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is the lone returning starting offensive lineman, but the unit’s chemistry could receive a boost from Bulaga and Linsley’s six years together in Green Bay.
Free-agent newcomer Oday Aboushi is expected to compete for right guard, but his nine years of experience should help him secure the job over the inexperienced linemen competing for the opening.
3. WIDE RECEIVER BATTLES
Mike Williams has his starting position secured as the No. 2 wide receiver behind Keenan Allen, but he’ll likely be playing the 2021 season for a new contract.
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco prefers to do contract extensions during the summer before the regular season, like he did last year with Joey Bosa and Allen. But Telesco might wait until after the season to do business with Williams, who’s set to receive a lucrative base salary of $15.6 million for the final year on his rookie deal.
A motivated Williams could be set for a prolific season and he can help his cause by staying healthy through training camp.
The Chargers’ third wideout position will be a competitive battle between rookie Josh Palmer, second-year players Joe Reed and K.J. Hill and speedsters Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson.
4. RUNNING BACK LOGJAM
The Chargers tend to keep three running backs on their initial 53-man roster and one spot already belongs to Austin Ekeler, the dynamic do-it-all playmaker.
If the trend continues, there could only be two spots available between Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, Darius Bradwell and rookie Larry Rountree III.
Jackson is a productive playmaker, but has struggled to stay healthy since entering the league in 2018. With one year left on his rookie deal, Jackson could be on the way out if he’s plagued by injuries this summer. But Jackson has the talent to quickly impress the new coaching staff if healthy. Jackson, however, might have to play catchup after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Tuesday.
Kelley, last year’s fourth-round pick, will need to prove his ball security issues are behind him. Rountree could earn a roster spot by winning the short-yardage role.
5. KICKER COMPETITION RETURNS
The days of not worrying about a starting kicker didn’t last long for Chargers fans.
Michael Badgley didn’t have competition last summer after making clutch kicks in 2018 and being reliable the second half of the 2019 season.
Everything changed after Badgley struggled throughout the 2020 season by missing potential game-winning kicks and failing to make kicks outside 45 yards.
Badgley will need to beat Tristan Vizcaino and Alex Kessman if he wants to earn the kicking job again.
CAMP PARKING INFO
Parking is available at Costa Mesa High School and at Orange Coast College for $10. All proceeds will benefit the Chargers Impact Fund. The Fund is committed to helping families thrive in and around Los Angeles.