The Los Angeles Chargers have multiple NFL training camp battles to watch, but keeping an eye on four key players – Asante Samuel Jr., Tre' McKitty, Trey Pipkins III and Kenneth Murray Jr. — who either struggled last season or have been struggling early on in camp will be crucial to the team returning to the postseason once again.
The Chargers look like a different squad so far in training camp, pushing the ball downfield more often in new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore's uptempo offense. With explosive playmakers on both ends of the field, the Chargers will need to find more consistency at key spots.
Let's take a look at four players who need to step it up in NFL training camp for the Bolts:
CB Asante Samuel Jr.
The Chargers are deep at defensive back with Michael Davis and J.C. Jackson on the outside, and it's a good problem to have. Figuring out who will be the primary slot corner is still up in the air, with Asante Samuel Jr. and Ja'Sir Taylor battling it out in camp.
Samuel Jr. has been disruptive defensively in camp, but hasn't always been on, according to Daniel Popper of The Athletic:
“Overall, it was an up-and-down day for Samuel,” Popper wrote. “And it has been an up-and-down camp through three days for the third-year cornerback as he attempts to find his place in a jam-packed cornerback group.”
Samuel Jr. graded out very well in coverage last season (14th out of 120 according to Pro Football Focus) but struggled mightily to defend the run. That's an issue in the slot, as opponents can target that relentlessly in the run game.
After the Chargers failed to protect a 27-7 lead in the Wild Card game loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, protecting against big plays in the passing game should take priority. Asante Samuel Jr. offers the most upside in the slot and has plenty of ball skills, but his development as a run defender is what can take him to the next level.
TE Tre' McKitty
Tre' McKitty was a third-round pick of the Chargers in the 2021 NFL Draft, and while it takes a while for young tight ends to get established, McKitty's ability to pick up Moore's offense should be important moving forward.
A look back at Moore's offenses with the Dallas Cowboys shows that tight ends were utilized frequently. While Gerald Everett stands to be the primary beneficiary of that, McKitty could get more opportunities in 12 personnel this season.
Tre' McKitty has just 16 receptions in two seasons, and he graded out as PFF's worst tight end (73rd) in the league last season. There's seemingly nowhere to go but up, as tight end coach Kevin Koger told Chargers.com.
“He had a decent rookie year and you have high expectations for Year 2 and it didn't materialize,” Koger said about McKitty. “It's a humbling game but he's attacked this offseason the right way. […] It's a big year for him but he's ready for it. I have no doubt he'll rise to the occasion.”
OT Trey Pipkins III
The Chargers made a risky move by extending RT Trey Pipkins this offseason, as he's been an inconsistent performer across his first four years. While depth on the offensive line is important, as Chargers fans know all too well, relying on Pipkins long-term will require some improvements before the real games begin.
Pipkins has sat most of training camp with an injury, so it's not totally fair to say that he's struggled. Pipkins only allowed two sacks last season, but he didn't do much in the run game. The Chargers have struggled to convert in obvious run situations, and Pipkins plays a big role in that.
Keeping Justin Herbert upright is understandably the biggest priority, but Trey Pipkins showing improvement in the run game could take the Chargers offense to another level.
LB Kenneth Murray Jr.
Perhaps no one needed a better showing at NFL training camp than 2020 first-round selection Kenneth Murray Jr.
Murray has struggled over his first three seasons, particularly as a run-stopper. Murray is a versatile linebacker who can pressure the quarterback and hold up nicely in coverage with all his speed, but his inability to step in gaps, shed blockers, and consistently bring down runners has left the Chargers highly susceptible to strong rushing attacks.
The good news for the Chargers? Murray Jr. has stepped it up in camp as of late, as head coach Brandon Staley told Daniel Popper of The Athletic.
“You’ve seen more playmaking, you’ve seen the physicality,” Staley said this week of Murray. “You’ve seen the speed that, I think, you guys have seen at times, but now you’re seeing it with a lot more consistency. He’s having a very quality camp for us.”
If Murray can further elevate his play against the run in training camp, the Chargers' pass rush and secondary should shine even more heading into the season.