‘Tough, tough football team’: Chargers invest in offensive line again with Zion Johnson

From the moment Brandon Staley took over as head coach of the Chargers in the winter of 2021, his roster-building priority — especially on offense — was made clear.

“You have to be a scrimmage team line in this league,” Staley said two weeks after he was hired. “And we certainly hope to be able to experience that.”

The Chargers’ capital allocation aligned with that vision. They signed center Corey Linsley to a top-notch free agency contract in March. The same week, they signed guard Matt Feiler to a long-term contract. They drafted left tackle Rashawn Slater with the No. 13 pick in April.

A year later, the commitment to that process — building an offense that can dominate the line of scrimmage and protect star quarterback Justin Herbert — hasn’t waned. In fact, it only got stronger.

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And that’s why the Chargers selected Boston College offensive lineman Zion Johnson with the 17th pick in the first round of the draft on Thursday night.

“That’s what stands the test of time in the league. In football, what stands the test of time is what happens in front,” Staley said. “It’s the only place I feel on the pitch that it’s really hard to catch up on. If you’re not good up front, it’s really hard as a play caller to make up for that. OKAY? And if you do, you have to overcompensate in such a way that it really inhibits your ability to make plays.

Johnson has the skills and polish to be an immediate starter inside the Chargers offensive line. For now, his starting spot will be at right guard. And we’ll see how it fits in specifically in a moment.

Hard to argue with more protection for Justin Herbert
What Boston College OL Zion Johnson brings to the Los Angeles Chargers

On a broader level, the Chargers needed more talent on the offensive line. Johnson fills that need. He is intelligent, powerful and physical. And with Feiler and Linsley, the Chargers now have a tough, commanding interior to keep Herbert upright and make an impact in the running game.

“It’s tough, it’s durable,” said general manager Tom Telesco. “We have excellent talented players. … We have Justin Herbert, obviously. These guys can’t really do their job without a rock solid offensive line. So while this pick is meant to protect our quarterback, which is a big part of it, it also serves to make everyone easier. So it’s pass protection, it’s a running game. When we’re in the second half of the game and we have the lead and we have to run the ball and they know we’re going to run the ball, he’s going to help there. So if it does what we think it can do, it will play between 900 and 1,000 shots for us in its first year.

Staley said: “He’s really, really impressive. Smart, tough, really physical, versatile, played in a pro style attack. I think from a physical point of view, big hands, long arms, really good feet, can really anchor in pass protection against the biggest, strongest, best inside players in the league. I really felt like this guy was a really complete player in both the running game and the passing game. And, again, only its intangibles are really what we were looking for.

Johnson played for head coach Jeff Hafley at Boston College. Hafley coached in the NFL as a defensive backs coach for the Buccaneers, Browns and 49ers from 2012 to 2018. Johnson’s BC offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. coached in the NFL in 2007 and from 2012 to 2018, including in 2015 as the Rams Offensive Coordinator. His offensive line coach, Matt Applebaum, is now OL’s coach on Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins staff.

Johnson is primed for NFL schemes, both in pass protection and as a run blocker. It was part of the call for the Chargers.

“You see him doing things that really translate to the NFL,” Staley said of watching Johnson in a movie. “You’re really capable of seeing this guy operate.”

The Chargers relied heavily on the left side of their offensive line — Slater, Feiler and Linsley — last season. They were solid in pass protection, but they also created a vast majority of the Chargers’ rushing production. On runs to left guard, left tackle and out of left tackle in 2021, the Chargers are averaging 4.91 yards per carry, according to Sharp Football Stats. On all other carries, the Chargers are averaging 3.61 yards per carry.

As Staley said, adding Johnson to the interior “really balances out our running game.”

“He gives you a round trip,” Staley said.

Staley and Telesco said the Chargers will keep Feiler at left guard for this season.

“That was the strength of our O-line unit last year,” Staley said, “and we really believe in that chemistry.”

This will leave them exposed to the right tackle. Trey Pipkins and Storm Norton are in line to compete for that starting spot — although the Chargers have nine other picks in this draft, starting with No. 79 in the third round on Friday.

Staley was more concerned with solidifying the interior.

“We were looking for strong attacking players, especially on the inside, and now we feel like we have that,” Staley said. “You have Matt, Corey and Zion, and it’s a really impressive trio.”

Staley added of Johnson: “He can pass inside protection. You can help tackles in this league a lot more than you can help inside players, and it’s much easier to neutralize an edge rusher than an inside rusher. And so when you have to go and block the Aaron Donalds of the world, the Chris Joneses of the world, the DeForest Buckners of the world, when you have to block these type of players inside with the money in play, you have to have an inside three who can do it. And we think Zion can do that at a very high level.

The Chargers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman in the first round for eight consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2020.

Then Staley came along.

The Chargers have now drafted one offensive lineman in the first round in consecutive years – Slater and Johnson.

“I’m happy to be a Charger,” Johnson said. “I look forward to working and earning my right to be one.”

They build an identity, and it starts at the front.

“What you’re trying to do is build a tough, tough football team,” Staley said. “That’s what is needed in this league, and that’s what I want to be known for here.”

(Photo: Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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