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Key matchups to watch in Rashawn Slater’s rookie season

The former Northwestern stalwart will have his hands full, especially early on.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers Rookie Minicamp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Rashawn Slater at No. 13 overall on April 29, it seemed like a match made in heaven, as Los Angeles acquired outstanding protection for burgeoning star quarterback Justin Herbert via a prospect many thought wouldn’t fall that far.

With minicamp and OTAs in the rear view mirror, and training camp on the horizon, all eyes will undoubtedly be on Slater, Northwestern’s highest draft pick in 16 years.

Slater is the presumptive starter at left tackle for new coach Brandon Staley, and his indoctrination from the Big Ten to the NFL certainly won’t be a piece of cake. Here are several important opponents Slater will encounter during his first professional season.

Week 1: Chase Young (Washington Football Team)

It’s only fitting that Slater would battle Young, a former Heisman finalist and the man he faced in his piece de resistance performance, in his first ever NFL start.

Though Slater didn’t suit up in a shortened 2020 season, a large reason why he skyrocketed up draft boards was his spotless blocking against Young in 2019, as few had — and have — ever handled the 2019 Chuck Bednarik Award winner even decently.

Young would figure to have the momentum in this matchup, as he already has an NFL season under his belt, and an absolutely terrific one at that. The Ohio State product tallied 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles en route to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

It’s worth noting that this will actually be Slater’s third career game against Young. If we’re (figuratively) keeping score, it’s 2-0 Slater in the individual wars in the trenches — see his tremendous performance versus Young in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game here — but Slater will definitely have his hands full to open his pro career.

Week 2: DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas Cowboys)

After a somewhat disappointing 2019 season, Lawrence seemed to bounced back in 2020. Though he’s totaled just 11.5 sacks in his last two seasons — not where a player in the third year of a five-year, $105 million deal wants to be — Lawrence is a formidable force in the run game and pressures the quarterback well, as his 37 hurries ranked seventh among all defensive ends/tackles.

Slater won’t necessarily face off with Lawrence on all snaps, as Lawrence tends to rotate between right and left defensive end a bit, and it remains to be seen how he’ll shift with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn taking over in Dallas.

Nevertheless, Slater will need to counter high caliber edge rushers and run stoppers in both of his first two starts.

Weeks 3 and 15: Frank Clark (Kansas City Chiefs)

This duel is very much up in the air, as Clark could very well be suspended or even be incarcerated if his charges this offseason become an actual conviction. As of now, it seems Clark should be able to play until at least Week 5, when his arraingement will occur, but it would not be a total shellshock if Kansas City decides to cut ties altogether with the 28-year-old.

Since being acquired by the Chiefs, Clark has posted 14 sacks in two years. Those are solid numbers, but still just one more than he had with the Seahawks in 2018.

If Clark is still playing in KC by Week 3, it’ll be yet another excellent opportunity for Slater to sharpen his craft against a very solid edge defender looking to return to premier form.

Week 6: Calais Campbell, Odafe Oweh (Baltimore Ravens)

Subsequent to a bit of a reprieve from top-notch linemen, Slater will be in for a tough task when the Chargers travel to Baltimore.

The Ravens’ defensive line is anchored by Campbell, a 6-foor-8 mammoth who has made the Pro Bowl each of the last four seasons. Even at nearly 35 years of age, Campbell is still a mismatch for basically any Offensive lineman, and he has a good five inches of height on Slater along with the savvy to create havoc and bat passes.

Also worth noting is Odafe Oweh, Baltimore’s first-round pick out of Penn State (who Slater never opposed in college). Oweh very well may not start for the Ravens, but he figures to get substantial playing time. If so, watch for this rookie-on-rookie bout in which Slater would hope to prove he was correctly valued at a higher pick.

Weeks 12 and 17: Von Miller, Bradley Chubb (Denver Broncos)

The Broncos’ defense was average at best last year, ranking 13th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric and 21st in total yards. That figures to do a complete 180 in 2021 after several major additions, possibly no bigger than the return of superstar linebacker Miller.

Miller is 32 and had only eight sacks in his last healthy season during 2019, but he’s still one of the more well-respected pass rushers in the game, largely due to his eight Pro Bowl appearances, three All-Pro selections and MVP performance Super Bowl 50.

Miller also isn’t without help, as Denver features rising star Bradley Chubb, who filled Miller’s void in 2020 by accumulating 7.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl nod of his own.

It’s a bit murky how the Broncos plan to utilize both Miller and Chubb in terms of assignment (for context, Ourlads has Miller as the Will linebacker and Chubb as the Sam linebacker), but Slater is sure to spar with both this upcoming season.

Week 13: Trey Hendrickson (Cincinnati Bengals)

Prior to 2020, Hendrickson had amassed a mere 6.5 sacks in three seasons in New Orleans. However, he absolutely burst onto the scene with 13.5 sacks in 2020, a number which tied him with Aaron Donald for second-most in the league.

In fact, the Bengals were so impressed with Hendrickson that they bestowed a four-year, $60 million contract upon him.

In his phenomenal 2020 season, Hendrickson lined up at RDE opposite All-Pro Cam Jordan. While he won’t have a benefit like that this season, he’ll certainly be hungry to live up to his lucrative deal, and he’ll prove to be a great test for a battle-tested Slater by this point in the year.

Week 14: Leonard Williams, Azeez Ojulari, Ifeadi Odenigbo (New York Giants)

Quietly, New York has established one of the better defensive lines in the NFL.

After being franchise-tagged for two straight offseasons, Williams cashed in on a three-year, $63 million deal that tied him with Lawrence and DeForest Buckner for fifth among defenders in Annual Average Value (AAV).

Williams can basically line up anywhere the Giants want him to, as he’ll battle everyone from the center to the tackles in any given game. That fluidity should help keep Slater on his toes.

Additionally, Slater will face off against yet another top-flight edge rusher from the 2021 NFL Draft in Ojulari, who fell to the second round. Like Oweh, Ojulari may not necessarily line up against left tackles, but this battle between top selections would pit young talents from big-time college teams against one another.

Finally, the Giants signed former Wildcat Ifeadi Odenigbo to a one-year deal this offseason. Odenigbo started 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings last season, so he should see plenty of playing time. Watching Odenigbo and Slater go head-to-head would certainly cement Northwestern’s growing NFL prominence.

Honorable Mention: Week 5: Anthony Walker, Greg Newsome (Cleveland Browns)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention when Slater’s Chargers welcome in the Cleveland Browns. This has the chance to be an all-NU bowl, as Los Angeles (Slater, Justin Jackson, Joe Gaziano) and Cleveland (Anthony Walker, Greg Newsome II, Blake Hance) each feature three Northwestern products.

What’s even neater is that Slater could lay a block on both Walker and Newsome in this game, two of the best defensive players to ever come out of Evanston.

Slater presumably won’t see all-world defender Myles Garrett in this one, as he primarily lines up against right tackles, but this game is guaranteed to leave Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of Wildcat nation giddy with pride.