View Original Notice ? Chargers draft preview: Is Trent McDuffie the missing piece in the secondary?
Chargers coach Brandon Staley was serious when he said at the NFL Scouting Combine that he’s always going to be looking for cornerbacks.
The Chargers signed prize free-agent cornerback J.C. Jackson last month to pair with last year’s rookie standout Asante Samuel Jr., but that didn’t stop Staley from traveling across the country to scout the best cornerbacks in the draft.
Cornerback isn’t a glaring need, but it might be as high as offensive tackle on the team’s draft priority list. Adding another quality cornerback could be the missing piece to unlocking Staley’s defense in 2022.
The Chargers have Michael Davis, but he struggled as the team’s No. 1 outside cornerback last season and might be better suited as a rotational player. Davis would also give the team the flexibility of not rushing a rookie cornerback if they decide to go that route in Thursday’s first round.
More cornerbacks would lead to more opportunities for Staley to tinker with groupings of five and six defensive backs on the field. The Chargers have the 17th pick in the opening round and don’t have a second-round pick, having sent it to Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack trade. They currently hold 10 total picks, with two in the sixth round and four in the seventh round.
The Chargers have one of the best safeties in the NFL with Derwin James, but lack depth at the position. Nasir Adderley, the 2019 second-round pick, has had mixed results as the team’s starting free safety.
Here are options and scenarios the Chargers could be faced with during the three-day draft in Las Vegas to address their needs in the secondary:
Meet the top three cornerbacks
Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati
Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
Trent McDuffie, Washington
Analysis: Gardner is considered by many draft experts as the best coverage corner in the draft and probably won’t fall outside the top 10.
Stingley might have the highest ceiling among the cornerback prospects, but he played only 10 games the past two seasons because of injuries. Staley, Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley made the trip to LSU’s Pro Day and were likely convinced by Stingley that he’s healthy and still the same player from his dynamic freshman season.
The Chargers would be thrilled if Gardner or Stingley is available at pick 17, but that’s probably a long shot.
McDuffie is a more realistic option for the Chargers, who spoke to the St. John Bosco High product at the combine. The 5-foot-11 McDuffie said the team was intrigued by his ability to play outside and inside cornerback.
Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft expert, has McDuffie rated higher than Stingley and considers McDuffie the 12th–best prospect in the draft.
What if safety Kyle Hamilton falls to 17?
Analysis: Hamilton is drawing comparisons to James as a do-it-all safety out of Notre Dame, but his draft stock took a hit after posting subpar times in the 40-yard dash.
James was considered a top-five pick before mysteriously dropping to 17th for the Chargers in the 2018 draft. Two versatile safeties are better than one, and this would be another dream scenario for the Chargers if Hamilton is available.
Hamilton is probably the only safety the Chargers would consider taking if they don’t trade out of their first pick. Safety isn’t a top priority, but Adderley hasn’t done enough in his first four seasons to avoid training-camp competition.
Options if no defensive back in the first round
Tariq Woolen, CB, UTSA
Coby Bryant, CB, Cincinnati
Joshua Williams, CB, Fayetteville State
Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
Jaylen Watson, CB, Washington State
Bryan Cook, S, Cincinnati
Nick Cross, S, Maryland
Analysis: All the defensive backs listed in this section received a third- or fourth-round grade by Brugler. The Chargers currently pick 15th in the third round (79th overall) and 18th in the fourth round (123rd overall).
The Chargers could get by with a quality cornerback trio of Jackson, Samuel and Davis, but the team wants depth at the position thanks to a competitive AFC West with top-flight quarterbacks like Denver’s Russell Wilson, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Las Vegas’ Derek Carr.
Expect the Chargers to draft a cornerback in the middle rounds if they don’t do it in the first round.
What the draft experts are saying
Brugler’s assessment of McDuffie from his 2022 NFL Draft Guide
“McDuffie might not hit ideal size threshold for some, but he is an easy sell in draft rooms because he has outstanding athleticism, intelligence and is well-schooled in various techniques. He has a high ceiling and a high floor and should start as an NFL rookie.”