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Getting center Corey Linsley shows Chargers' desire to protect Justin Herbert

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COSTA MESA, Calif. -- There's an argument in football circles about who's the most important, smartest player on a football field: middle linebacker or quarterback. Some say it's none of the above.

"I don't know anything about playing quarterback," said Los Angeles Chargers center Corey Linsley, who knows a little something about high-IQ quarterbacks coming from the Green Bay Packers. "It all looks pretty cool to me."

That, right there, should tell you how important having a good center is to your offensive line. The Chargers certainly have one in the All-Pro Linsley, who headlined an early free agency rush that saw the Chargers go out of their way to protect Justin Herbert, their young franchise quarterback.

Last year, the Chargers moved Dan Feeney to center after Mike Pouncey suffered a serious hip injury and subsequently retired in February.

Feeney performed well but it wasn't his regular spot and Herbert, the rookie quarterback thrown into the starting spot two minutes before the team's second game because of freak injury to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, had played few snaps under center at Oregon. Feeney was in an unfortunate and unfair quandary.

Feeney wasn't alone, as the Chargers' offensive line struggled throughout the 2020 season.

That put Chargers GM Tom Telesco in an unfortunate and unfair position, as well. The patchwork offensive line (with on-and-off injuries to right tackle Bryan Bulaga, guard Trai Turner and seemingly just about everybody else) created a situation that might be called desperate.

Still, Herbert adjusted and then some, named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after throwing for 4,336 yards -- 39 yards short of Andrew Luck's rookie record -- and an NFL rookie record 31 touchdown passes. But he still needed reinforcements in front of him.

Which brings us to the first week of free agency.

The first move Telesco made was to spend generously ($62.5 million over five years, with $17 million fully guaranteed at signing) and grab the best center in the league in Linsley.

After Linsley gave away all his down-filled coats and woolen socks, he and his wife, Anna, headed west as the NFL's top-paid center. But not without some on-field trepidation.

"I owe them," he said. "it's going to be tough. It's not complicated, but it isn't easy. We have to put the work in. We have to get the reps in. We have to get a feel for each other."

He and Bulaga, who signed with the Chargers last offseason, spent six seasons together in Green Bay and talked throughout the free-agent process.

"He was very complimentary about everything out here," Linsley said. "Obviously this place kind of sells itself, but for the organization, he had spoken with the coaches beforehand ... The familiarity with what we're going to be running and the team's potential. I wanted to be part of that and contribute to that."

The Chargers also signed former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi from the Detroit Lions -- both of whom have a chance to start at right guard -- and veteran tight end Jared Cook, who was previously on the New Orleans Saints. Losing tight end Hunter Henry to the New England Patriots was painful, but the Chargers think it's something they can overcome with Cook's help.

"We know what [Henry] means to the football team," GM Tom Telesco said. "We'll just kind of see where our options are."

Linsley emphasized communication is key to getting everyone in the organization to where they want to go, no matter the quarterback.

Linsley said: "I can reach guys in the pass block, but it doesn't mean anything if everybody isn't on the same page and we're all going in different directions. That's the biggest thing on my plate that I have to take care of."

Oh, and yes, the quarterback. He needs taking care of, too, as the cornerstone of the franchise. Meaning, "protect him," said Telesco.

Even though the Chargers have acquired three offensive linemen and a tight end so far, Telesco insists he's trying to build "the whole team", not just the immediate support around Herbert.

"A good defense to get the ball back to the quarterback," he said. "Good special teams to have good field position. You want weapons for the quarterback. You need people that he can throw to and people to hand it off to and people to protect him."

You can check that final box.