Fri, Sep 18, 2015

Training Camp Battle Preview: Nickel Back

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CB Steve Williams. Photo by Shana Siler, SDBoltReport.com

Training camp is just over a month away, which means it is high time we start previewing some of the most intense position battles slated to take place at Chargers Park. Several spots are expected to be up for grabs, including the nickel back position, where Steve Williams will look to hold off newcomers Patrick Robinson and Craig Mager.

Robinson comes over as a free agent from New Orleans. The former first-round pick signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Chargers, filling the void created when Shareece Wright left for a similar deal with the 49ers.

Robinson struggled to live up to his lofty draft status and endured more downs than ups during his stint with the Saints, including a knee injury that cost him the 2013 season.

He got off to another slow start last year, getting benched in a Week 2 loss to the Browns. He quickly bounced back as the team's nickel back and played much better in that role, finishing with two interceptions.

It was Robinson's success in that nickel back role that made him so enticing to the Chargers, although -- should he win the position -- he would cover outside receivers in nickel formations while Jason Verrett moves inside to shadow the slot.

Robinson gives up too many big plays but is capable of authoring some of his own, as evidenced by his nine career interceptions. In that sense, he is similar to former Chargers first-round pick Antoine Cason.

Robinson's path to the nickel back job got more crowded on draft weekend, when Tom Telesco plucked Texas State cornerback Craig Mager in the third round. The physical playmaker comes off a disruptive senior season in which he posted three interceptions, two sacks and six tackles for loss.

Mager is an aggressive player whose big hits will remind Bolts backers of Quentin Jammer. He is always going 100 miles per hour (imagine D.J. Fluker's approach in a cornerback's body) and will challenge every pass attempt in his vicinity.

There is a chance Mager's future could be at safety, especially if Eric Weddle leaves after the season, but for now he is squarely in the mix at cornerback.

"He's feisty," Telesco said. "He can tackle. He can cover. We think he's got a lot of upside at the corner position."

Robinson and Mager both have a lot of ability, but they still have their work cut out for them as they look to supplant Williams, who took over as San Diego's nickel back after Richard Marshall was released midway through last season.

Williams was elevated all the way to the No. 2 role in the Week 16 game against the 49ers after Wright left with a concussion. Williams responded with one of his best games of the season, helping spark San Diego's rally from 21 points down.

The increased playing time served Williams well, especially after he missed his entire rookie season with a pectoral injury. Now, the fifth-round pick from Telesco's inaugural draft class is feeling more confident than ever.

"I fit in well here because I'm a good cover corner. I'm really good," Williams told Chargers.com. "So [John Pagano] is going to put me in to cover guys. I can play both inside the slot and outside. I can do whatever they want me to do in this system."

How will it all play out? Our recent roster projections served as a bit of a spoiler, as we have Robinson failing to stick on the 53-man roster. That is not a knock on him as much as a vote of confidence in the young tandem of Williams and Mager.

Williams will likely open the season as the starting nickel back, allowing Mager to begin his career in more limited dime packages as he makes the giant leap from the Sun Belt Conference to the NFL. But Mager is too good to keep on the sidelines for long. If he fails to overtake Williams by midseason, he will likely see increased playing time at the expense of Jimmy Wilson and/or Jahleel Addae. One way or another, Pagano will find a way to get No. 29 on the field.


Which player will win the starting nickel back position? Talk about it inside our new message boards!


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 also works as the Senior NFL Reporter for Footballinsiders.com. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

Tags: 
Antoine Cason, Craig Mager, Jason Verrett, John Pagano, Patrick Robinson, Quentin Jammer, Steve Williams, Tom Telesco
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