The Legacy of the Position: Chargers, Defensive Line
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. This year, the Los Angles Chargers needed to beef up their defensive line and drafted Scott Matlock out of Boise State. Let's take a look at their history with the position and the standards that have already been set.
The first great defensive tackle in Chargers' history is Ernie Ladd. the 6'9" 290 lb giant of a man was taken in the seventh round of the 1961 AFL Draft. He was a terrifying presence on the Chargers defense, being named first-team All-AFL three times and going to four straight AFL All-Star Games from 1962 through 1965. But none of those individual accolades compare to the championship that the Chargers won in 1963, pummeling the Patriots 51-10. Ladd left for Houston in 1966 and it can be argued that the franchise has yet to find a proper replacement.
Over the next several years, the team tried different combinations such as George Gross and Steve DeLong, Russ Washington and Scott Appleton as well as Tom Williams and Ron Billingsley none coming close to filling the massive hole that Ernie Ladd had left behind.
By 1975, the Chargers had had enough, drafting both Gary "Big Hands" Johnson out of Grambling State and Louie Kelcher out of SMU in the first two rounds of that year's draft. In many ways, this was the beginning of a new era in San Diego. Soon, quarterback Dan Fouts and coach Don Coryell would come aboard and steer their offense to victory after victory while piling up records unheard of at the time.
But this article is based on defense, not offense. Together, Kelcher and Johnson would combine for seven Pro Bowls and three All-Pros while leading one of the better defensive lines in league history. Of course, their biggest star was Fred Dean, a defensive end who constantly defied his lack of size with natural strength and athleticism. By 1984, all three would be in San Francisco, winning the Super Bowl with the 49ers.
The Chargers went through a bit of a rebuild through the late 1980s and by 1992 they had begun to solidify a defense around famed linebacker Junior Seau. They could feel something special brewing in 1994 with Shawn Lee and Reuben Davis manning the middle of the defensive front. Lee's 6.5 sacks and Davis' 38 tackles helped the team make a surprise Super Bowl run where they were overwhelmed by the 49ers. It remains the Chargers only trip to the sport's biggest stage.
After that fateful night, the Chargers quickly slipped back to mediocrity and continued to struggle to find stability on the defensive line. It wasn't until 2000 that they found a man who could line up inside for a long period of time. Drafted in 1998 out of Oklahoma State in the Supplemental Draft, it took Jamal Williams two years to crack the starting lineup and once he did, he found a home for the next nine years.
At 6'3" 348 lb, the man was built like a nose tackle but could easily plug gaps as a defensive tackle. Year after year, he came to work to refine his craft and by 2005 all of that hard work began to pay off with the first of three straight trips to the Pro Bowl. After recording 69 tackles and two sacks the following year, the nose tackle earned his second straight All-Pro nod.
Beginning in 2009, the team began a long, arduous journey to find his replacement. In the years to come, they tried out players such as Ian Scott, Antonio Garay and Aubrayo Franklin, none doing Jamal Williams' legacy justice. They just couldn't quite fill his cleats.
When the Chargers drafted pass rushing dervish Joey Bosa in 2016, they changed their defense to a 4-3. This freed up Brandon Mebane to make more plays. The aging veteran didn't disappoint, making 40 tackles in 2018, the second and the best of his three years in Los Angeles.
The team had better success with Linval Joseph, a svelt run stuffer from the Virgin Islands. He racked up 60 tackles in 2020 and 57 more in 2021 before leaving for the Eagles in 2022.
The Chargers were on the wrong side of history in the Wild Card Round of the 2022 playoffs. Up by 27 at halftime, their defensive line was exposed against the surging Jaguars. Now they have drafted Scott Matlock and only time will tell if he can fill the cleats of those that have come before him.