Which Chargers UDFAs have the best shot at making the roster? Mailbag

In two weeks, Jim Harbaugh and the Los Angeles Chargers will open training camp at the organization’s new facility in El Segundo, Calif.

A roster that has been reshaped in one sweeping transitional offseason will truly begin to take shape.

The Chargers have a new coaching staff, a new general manager and new starters in nearly every position group. With all these changes come unknowns. What will the team’s identity be when the pads come on? Who will win starting jobs and rotational roles? Who makes the roster? Who misses out? Where are the strengths? Where are the weaknesses?

Training camp is always about answering questions. That is especially the case with this version of the Chargers.

And so what better way to prepare for these crucial summer practices than by answering your most pressing questions about the team and roster?

You ask. I answer.

It’s the mailbag.

Do you foresee any UDFA making the roster? If so, who are your favorites? — @Lausell_Jr

The Chargers have 22 undrafted free agents on their 91-player roster. Given the state of the team, there will be opportunities for these undrafted players to legitimately compete for 53-man roster spots.

The Chargers are still very much in a reset phase of their build. Harbaugh and general manager Joe Hortiz are not necessarily married to many bottom-of-the-roster holdovers — financially or otherwise. The undrafted free agents are players hand-picked by the new regime. This is an environment that could potentially produce multiple undrafted free agents on the 53-man.

Offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart and tight end Zach Heins are two UDFAs I will be keeping an eye on early in training camp. I think they both have a chance to make the 53-man roster. A lot will depend on how they perform once padded practices begin. That is when their blocking skill sets can be properly evaluated.



Nuggets on all 20 of the Chargers’ undrafted free agent signings

Barnhart started 30 games for Harbaugh at Michigan at four different positions on the offensive line — both tackle spots and both guard spots. He played both left guard and right guard with the Chargers’ second-team offense in the spring. Barnhart’s path to a roster spot will be as a backup swing guard. His primary competition for that role will be Jordan McFadden, a 2023 fifth-round pick by the previous regime.

Heins, out of South Dakota State, is over 6-foot-6 and 259 pounds. He projects as a capable inline blocker. The Chargers have been very clear about wanting to build a physical and imposing running game. To do that consistently, they need run blockers at tight end. They signed an elite run blocker in free agency in Will Dissly. But I think they need more run blocking behind Dissly.

Hayden Hurst is a functional blocker, but he is better as a pass-catcher. Donald Parham Jr. and Stone Smartt are below-average blockers. Parham did not participate in team drills during the spring practices. I wonder how patient the new regime will be with Parham, whose development has been stunted by injuries. We will see how Heins performs in contact drills in training camp. I am expecting him to flash.

What’s the plan at secondary? — @452Bullmoose

The Chargers appeared to settle on a five-man nickel grouping by the end of the spring: Asante Samuel Jr. and Kristian Fulton at outside cornerback, Derwin James Jr. and Alohi Gilman at safety and Ja’Sir Taylor in the slot.

The two outside corners and the two safeties feel pretty set to me. There could be some competition at slot corner, however. Rookie fifth-round pick Tarheeb Still started to look more comfortable during mandatory minicamp. In the second-to-last practice of the offseason program, Still had three passes defended, including an interception of Justin Herbert. Still has great instincts and ball skills. James specifically mentioned Still when asked if any young players had jumped out to him in the spring. I expect Still to put some pressure on Taylor early in camp.

The second layer to the secondary plan revolves around James. What will defensive coordinator Jesse Minter do when he moves James around, including to the slot in big nickel packages? Getting James close to the line of scrimmage is beneficial. But there is a give and take. When James moves to the slot, the Chargers must bring on a safety to replace him in the deep part of the field. In the spring, JT Woods and AJ Finley were rotating as that replacement safety. The Chargers also signed safety Tony Jefferson after he tried out during minicamp.

This will be a pretty heated position battle. James’ versatility is only as valuable as the third safety that comes on to replace him. I think it was smart to bring in a veteran like Jefferson as an option for that role. At the same time, he has not played in an NFL game in a year and a half.

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Your top three biggest concerns going into the season? — @drbobspecial

In no particular order …

1. Trey Pipkins III’s transition to right guard. Pipkins has played some solid football at right tackle in his career. He was a quality starter there in 2022 and earned his three-year contract extension, though he regressed to a degree in 2023. Guard is an entirely new position that requires different footwork, different mechanics and, most importantly, different timing. Having Pipkins’ size and athleticism on the interior is intriguing on paper. But he has never played a snap of guard in an NFL game, preseason or regular season. The game moves much more quickly at guard than it does at tackle. Defensive linemen are on offensive linemen almost instantaneously. On the edge, tackles have considerably more time to react, which I think Pipkins has taken advantage of, at times, with his athleticism. His move inside is something I will be monitoring closely in camp.

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Trey Pipkins III has been solid at tackle, but will his skill set transition to guard? (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

2. Do the Chargers have enough at receiver? I like many of the pieces in the room. Joshua Palmer is a complete receiver poised for a career season at the top of the depth chart. Ladd McConkey is a pro-ready route runner who is already looking like a perfect fit for Herbert. DJ Chark Jr. provides some speed and contested-catch capacity on the outside. My concern is twofold. First, do the Chargers have a No. 1 receiver who can win in got-to-have-it passing moments? Even if Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman build an elite running game, there will come a time when the Chargers are trailing and need to convert a third or fourth down in the air. Who is winning that down? Secondly, I worry about the durability of Palmer and McConkey, who both have checkered injury histories. It feels like the Chargers are one injury away from Quentin Johnston again playing significant snaps. That worries me.

3. Tackling at outside corner. Samuel and Fulton are both sub-par tacklers. A defense can sometimes hide one poor tackler on the outside. It is nearly impossible to hide two. I could see this weakness popping up periodically when offenses try to attack the Chargers on the edge. This was a big issue for the Chargers in 2022.

The third safety spot would have cracked my top three before the Jefferson signing. Bringing in an experienced veteran alleviates some of my concerns there. I also have concerns about the center depth. If Bradley Bozeman goes down, the Chargers will be starting either Brenden Jaimes or McFadden.

Where do you think the RB depth chart currently stands? — @RG_escot4

This one in order:

1. Gus Edwards
2. J.K. Dobbins
3. Kimani Vidal
4. Isaiah Spiller
5. Elijah Dotson
6. Jaret Patterson

I see Edwards as the clear lead back. The secondary touches are open for competition, though if Dobbins is healthy, I think he wins that job. Edwards was nursing an injury in the spring, but according to Harbaugh, he should be ready for camp.



Chargers free-agent film review: Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins bring overhaul at running back

How many WRs do you anticipate the Chargers keeping on the 53-man roster for Week 1? — @hustinjerbert

I will set the over/under at 5.5. I am leaning toward five at the moment: Palmer, McConkey, Chark, Johnston and Derius Davis. The two rookie draft picks, Brenden Rice and Cornelius Johnson, did not show me much during the spring. They will both likely be fighting for roster spots. One other player to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie Jaelen Gill, who I thought had a fine spring.

(Top photo of Karsen Barnhart: Ric Tapia / Associated Press)

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