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Protection for Justin Herbert main priority for Los Angeles Chargers in 2021 NFL draft

COSTA MESA, Calif. — What will the new Los Angeles Chargers coaching staff and Tom Telesco, in his sixth season as general manager, do in the upcoming NFL draft?

Telesco was wildly successful in last year’s draft, especially with quarterback Justin Herbert — who was named offensive rookie of the year — but, bottom line, the Chargers need to protect him.

“I’m encouraged where we are with the core players that we have, with the coaching staff that’s here,” Telesco said. “But we’ve got some work to do.”

They signed the best center in free agency in All-Pro Corey Linsley and added Oday Aboushi and Matt Feiler, but the Chargers are in dire need of a left tackle. Protecting Herbert should and will be their top priority starting with their first pick, which is No. 13 overall.

Penei Sewell (who served as Herbert’s blind-side protection at Oregon) will likely be gone, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find a quality protector with the 13th pick.

In fact, some rank Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater ahead of Sewell, even with his shorter-than-average, 33-inch arms. It’s not a big deal, experts say, as Slater’s ability to use those arms is more important than their length. Slater can play tackle or guard and is quick off the snap and gets his hands (and short arms) up into the opponent.

Because he opted out of the 2020 season, not as much is known about him as other linemen. Slater’s father is former NBA player Reggie Slater. Rashawn started 12 games at right tackle in 2017 and 14 games in 2018, when Northwestern won the Big Ten West. He transitioned to left tackle in 2019 and was twice named Northwestern Offensive Player of the week.

USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw also have NFL-ready physical abilities and could be around when the Chargers pick. The Chargers can’t go wrong here, as one of Slater, Vera-Tucker and Darrisaw should be around when they’re on the clock.

The Chargers have needs defensively, as they allowed 27 or more points 10 times in 2020 and lost seven of those games. They only had 27 sacks as a team (7.5 from Joey Bosa) and they need more power up front to compete in their own conference, much less the rest of the NFL.

“Let’s not forget we need to add talent amongst the whole football team. We’re trying to build a balanced football team,” Telesco said. “I don’t know if we’re you know, just a better offensive line away from winning a championship.”

They could take a defensive end in the second round with the No. 47 pick and Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr., and Washington’s Joe Tryon each bring good size and ample explosiveness.

But they could mix it all up, of course, and take a corner either at No. 47 or in the third round with the No. 77 pick. The last two pure corners the Chargers have drafted were Craig Mager in the third round in 2015 and Jason Verrett in the first round in 2014, neither of whom is still on the team (Desmond King, a fifth-rounder in 2016, played both corner and safety). But by the No. 77 pick most of the top-ranked prospects will be taken.

If he’s available, Georgia’s Tyson Campbell — who started all 10 games for the Bulldogs in 2020 and finished with 29 tackles — could be a good choice. As could Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, who opted out last season but had 64 total tackles, four interceptions, 17 pass deflection and a forced fumble as a freshman in 2018. Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson (6-foot-1, 193 pounds) and Ohio State’s Shaun Wade (6-1, 195) are physical corners who could also be under consideration in the third round.

The Chargers’ run defense allowed nearly 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. And with the defense that Brandon Staley is cooking up (ideally with versatile, quick linebackers) it would be smart to look at Ohio State’s Pete Werner, a linebacker who played safety in high school and showed outstanding lateral range in three years as a starter with the Buckeyes, or Alabama’s Dylan Moses, a former five-star recruit who missed the 2019 season because of a torn ACL but recovered with 80 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.

At wide receiver, the Chargers are relatively set with the return of Keenan Allen (100 catches for 992 yards and eight touchdowns) and Mike Williams (48 receptions for 756 yards and five touchdowns) but Auburn’s Seth Williams and Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt could be available in the fourth round at No. 97 overall to add depth.

It will be interesting to see which way the Chargers go and it largely depends, of course, on who’s available and who has been scooped up by previous teams.

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