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Projecting Joe Gaziano’s role on the Chargers’ defensive line

NU’s all-time sacks leader will look to breakthrough on one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.

Gaziano celebtrates a first-down sack against Rutgers in Northwestern’s 18-15 win on October, 20 2018.

Despite not being one of 255 players picked in the 2020 NFL Draft, Joe Gaziano signed a contract with the Los Angeles Chargers shortly after the event ended Saturday night.

While this allows Gaziano to get his feet wet in the NFL, the path to immediate playing time is not clear behind what is considered to be one of the league’s best defensive front sevens.

More than likely, Gaz will have an opportunity to be an understudy to two dominant forces in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.

The Massachusetts native played primarily defensive end for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern and should be expected to provide depth at the position for the Chargers.

The Chargers’ defensive line is stacked with talent both in the interior and on the edges. It’s most conceivable that the former Wildcat would find playing time at defensive end or outside linebacker.

He often lined up at defensive tackle for Northwestern in order to give opposing offensive lines a different look. Although he is comfortable at this position, it is unlikely he will play the position at the NFL level, at least for the Chargers. Gus Bradley’s defense runs a 3-4 scheme that uses only one defensive tackle at a time. After losing Brandon Mebane in the offseason, the Chargers signed Linval Joseph, one of the prizes of this free agency class.

The combination of Joseph and former Notre Dame star Jerry Tillery, along with added depth in Justin Jones, P.J. Johnson and Cortez Broughton, will take up all available snaps at the position.

Outside Linebacker

Gaziano could find himself in an unfamiliar position during some of the Chargers new heavy blitz packages. While he likely lacks the athleticism to line up as a true cover outside linebacker, he may come onto the field in this position solely as a pass rusher. Behind a thin core consisting of Uchenna Nwosu, Drue Tranquill and newly acquired Nick Vigil, there is potential for Gaziano to see time at this position.

It is unlikely that the Charges will keep more than four defensive ends on their eventual fifty-three man roster. Gaz will battle Rochell and Lemonier for a roster spot behind Bosa and Ingram. One key for Gaziano will be showing his versatility as an outside linebacker and defensive tackle as well as a defensive end. Another will be to prove his worth as a run-stopper on first and second downs, so Bosa and Ingram can come in as pass-rushers on crucial third downs.

Let’s go more in depth on the current edge rushers.

Defensive End

Joey Bosa (2019 key stats: 67 combined tackles, 18 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 1 FF)

Bosa made an immediate impact for the Chargers after being drafted with third pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. With double-digit sacks in three of four years, the former Ohio State Buckeye has solidified his pass rushing talents as some of the best in the game.

Melvin Ingram (2019 key stats: 48 combined tackles, 11 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 INT)

Melvin Ingram exploded onto the national stage in 2015 after playing marginally in his first three NFL seasons. From 2015-17, he compiled twenty-nine sacks before his production leveled off to seven sacks in each of the past two seasons. Now thirty-one years old, the Chargers will look to Ingram to provide energy on pass-rushing downs as well as leadership for a young defensive unit.

Isaac Rochell, (2019 key stats: 12 combined tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack)

Rochell has played sparingly since being drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft, racking up seven sacks in the three seasons he has played. The Chargers signed a tender this offseason to bring him back on an exclusive rights contract.

Jesse Lemonier, (2019 college stats: 80 combined tackles, 15.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 1 FF)

Lemonier registered an impressive 20.5 sacks over the last two seasons under former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he’s is undersized to play defensive end in the NFL. Only time will tell if he can make large enough strides to stick on any roster.

Prediction: Gaziano has the size and strength to push for a roster spot as a pass-rushing role player. As a student of the game, he will have a large chance to make the roster as long as he can refine his skills and work on his foot speed throughout the offseason. He will have the chance to stick on the Chargers’ roster for years to come as both Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram have expiring contracts this upcoming season.

It’s unclear how the NFL offseason (and season, for that matter) will be affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it could affect how players make their impressions and secure roster spots.