The Chargers are rolling the dice at outside linebacker, turning the keys over to a group of recent draftees that includes Melvin Ingram (2012), Jeremiah Attaochu (2014) and rookie fifth-round pick Kyle Emanuel. But the key to the group's success may be Tourek Williams, who steps in for the retired Jarret Johnson as the SAM linebacker charged with setting the edge and stopping the run.
Williams enters his third season after joining the Chargers as a sixth-round pick in Tom Telesco's inaugural draft class. In his first two years, he has appeared in 28 games (including six starts) and posted 27 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup. It should be noted, though, that all of those starts and takeaways came during his rookie season.
Does that mean Williams' play regressed in his second season? Not at all.
As a rookie, Williams earned an overall grade of -12.2 from Pro Football Focus (-3.4 against the run, -4.6 as a pass rusher and -5.0 in pass coverage). That number improved to a more respectable -3.1 in 2014 (-1.5 against the run, -3.1 as a pass rusher and +1.0 in pass coverage).
The most encouraging sign for the Chargers is how much Williams improved against the run, especially over the second half of last season. From Week 9 on, he finished with a grade of +1.1 against the run, with especially strong games against the Dolphins and Broncos.
That bodes well for Williams' role going forward. He projects as the starting outside linebacker across from Ingram, although he will likely come off the field in passing situations in favor or Attaochu, Emanuel or Cordarro Law.
Williams realizes what is expected of him this season, which is why he changed his entire approach during the offseason. For proof, just see what he told the team's website during OTAs:
"I worked hard all offseason, and I changed my whole mindset. From the way I eat and the way I do everything, every single thing was about football.This is my first offseason where I really did that where everything was about football. 100 percent everything. It was mainly football before, but I let other distractions distract me at times. As a result I wasn't as into the playbook as I should have been. Now I know the playbook and I know everything. That is a huge plus because I'm going to be able to play faster knowing everything. That is huge for me.
"I went home determined that every morning after I'd wake up, it would be all for football. I'd work out for football and I'd eat for football. That is what I'd worry about. I made sure everything I did was for football. In previous years I wasn't very consistent. It's working out for me so far. I'm still fine tuning some things to get better with my hands and my feet, but I am coming right along."
Credit some of that improved maturity to Williams' time with Johnson. Williams learned a lot from the 12-year veteran, including how to approach the game more seriously and never take a play off. He picked up some tactical points from Johnson's game, as well, appreciating how Johnson took out two people every time he crashed the line of scrimmage. That is something Williams hopes to incorporate.
Williams is even looking more like his mentor after shaving off his trademark dreadlocks as part of his more businesslike approach to the game.
The hope within the organization is that Williams' transformation will spill over to special teams, as well. San Diego is looking for more help on the coverage units this season after losing Andrew Gachkar and Seyi Ajirotutu. Williams already played on the coverage units last season, but he aims to make a more sizable impact going forward.
"I have done a complete 180 from when I was drafted my rookie year," Williams told Chargers.com. "I watched back the film from special teams from when I first got here, and when I run down I look so weak, slow and sluggish. Now I look quicker, stronger and faster. I just feel like my total game has turned around, and I feel better. I'm seeing better results on film, so I am going to keep putting myself to the test to push myself higher and higher to be the best I could be."
If Williams can indeed put it all together this season, it will be a timely ascension. He has two years remaining on his rookie contract, so with a big season, he could potentially play his way into a place at the negotiating table. However, if he fails to take the next step, he risks getting lost in San Diego's sea of youth at the outside linebacker position.
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Michael Lombardo has covered the San Diego Chargers since 2003. He spent 12 years covering the team for Scout.com and has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. In addition to being publisher of SDBoltReport.com, he works as the Senior NFL Reporter for Footballinsiders.com. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter @NFLinsider_Mike.