Chargers' secondary hopes big-name players bring big-time production

Derwin James hopes to play a full season in 2020 after missing the first 11 games of 2019 due to a foot injury. Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers' secondary is stacked with Super Bowl winner Chris Harris Jr., All-Pros Derwin James and Desmond King, and Pro Bowl selection Casey Hayward Jr.

Though they have yet to play a down together, the secondary group already is considered among the NFL's most dangerous going into the 2020 season.

However, James, a third-year safety, cautioned against overexcitement.

"I feel like it's just all on paper," James said. "It looks good, but we got to go out there and perform."

A 10th-year pro who spent the past nine seasons with the Denver Broncos before signing a two-year, $17 million free-agent contract with the Chargers, Harris is confident about the group's potential.

"We've got a lot of guys who have a lot of talent," said the All-Pro cornerback, who earned a Super Bowl 50 ring. "Now we've just got to put in the work."

How these pieces -- along with cornerback Michael Davis and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Nasir Adderley -- will fit together remains somewhat of a mystery after teams were forced to forego their routine offseason program in lieu of virtual meetings because of the coronavirus pandemic.

No positions have officially been assigned and Chargers coach Anthony Lynn doesn't expect starters to be named until training camp.

After a 5-11, last-place season, Lynn pointed to one specific area that contributed to the disappointing year: turnovers. The Chargers committed too many on offense with 31, which ranked 29th in the NFL, and didn't create nearly enough on defense.

"You're not going to win games like that," Lynn said. "That's pretty simple."

The Chargers ranked last in the league last season with 14 takeaways. They intercepted 11 passes (ranked 22nd), forced a league-low six fumbles and only recovered three of them (32nd).

There's no exact science to creating turnovers, according to defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who said turnovers tend to fluctuate season to season. Case in point: in 2017, the Chargers created 27 turnovers, ranking sixth, and forced 20 in 2018, ranking 16th.

Bradley, however, is certain that the Chargers can help their turnover margin by applying more pressure to quarterbacks. Last season, the Bolts had a pass rush win rate of 45.4%, which ranked 11th in the league, according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, but they ranked 28th in sacks with 30.

"If you affect the quarterback, it gives you a better chance to getting more takeaways," Bradley said. "So that's the challenge for us, is up front as a whole defense."

The Chargers return standout defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III, plus added veteran tackle Linval Joseph on a two-year, $17 million free-agent deal. But the spotlight remains on their crowded, star-studded secondary.

Bradley is no stranger to impact backfields. As the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, Bradley helped mold the "Legion of Boom," which featured Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. The veteran coordinator stopped short of comparing this Chargers secondary to the Legion of Boom, but said there are some similarities.

"Highly spirited group, strong personalities, highly competitive," Bradley said, describing his preferences in a defensive back. "And I'm seeing a lot of traits -- what we have in the back end now with this group, so that part is very, very similar."

Harris comes to L.A. with a self-described renewed energy and a "whole bunch of chips" on his shoulder after moving on from the Broncos.

"I'm fired up," said Harris, who reunites with former Broncos defensive backs coach Ron Milus. "I'm excited about the coaches, I feel very comfortable and I'm hungry, so I'm not done."

With 20 career interceptions, Harris said he can play outside or in the slot. King, a fourth-year pro who played nickel last season, could be auditioning for several roles after a strong offseason.

"They say he's been unbelievable in meetings," Bradley said. "So maybe a guy like Desmond can take that next step up and we can put more on his plate as far as playing different positions as well."

James, who was sidelined for 11 games last season because of a foot injury, also is expected to move around in 2020.

“I’m comfortable at linebacker, comfortable in the slot, comfortable man everywhere on that field,” said James, a strong safety who earned All-Pro as a rookie in 2018. "So it don't really matter to me."

Jenkins played free safety last season, but there could be some changes for him this year, too. The wild card in the secondary could be Adderley, who was drafted in the second round last year but spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve.

"He is a good athlete," Lynn said. "I wouldn't bet against the young man."

Players have expressed confidence in their ability to pick up and master multiple spots during virtual meetings. But each is aware that it will take time to adjust when they return to the field.

For Bradley, their potential and versatility provide promise, but he'd prefer to watch it unfold on the field sooner than later.

"That's the part I think I'm missing the most about the OTAs, is just seeing how do we match up," Bradley said. "Do we have the flexibility to move some guys around and where can we put them and that's the part that I think is a little frustrating right now, but until that time we're doing everything in the classroom ... that's where we're challenging them now, to see if they can pick it up mentally, but we're proceeding like we can move guys around."