After competing against each other for 13 training-camp practices, the Chargers finally will have a chance to hit someone else Saturday when they open the preseason against the Rams.
Or, at least, some of the Chargers will have a chance to do so.
As with last year, most of the veteran starters will not play until the team kicks off the regular season, which will come Sept. 11 against Las Vegas at SoFi Stadium.
Under second-year coach Brandon Staley, the Chargers prefer to limit the preseason to players who fall into one of two categories: 1) Those competing for starting positions or roster spots; and 2) Those still trying to establish themselves in the league.
So, even though Justin Herbert and Joey Bosa won’t play after kickoff Saturday night, there still will be plenty to monitor as it relates to the Chargers and their 2022 season.
Here are the top five areas to watch:
Right side of offensive line
The Chargers have one of the most respected centers in the NFL in Corey Linsley. They have an ascending Pro Bowl left tackle in Rashawn Slater. They have a left guard so stout that they’ve nicknamed Matt Feiler “Anchor.”
The right side of the offensive front, however, is where matters are less proven or certain.
The Chargers drafted Zion Johnson at No. 17 overall to be their starter at right guard. The rookie has been impressive in practice and likely will see some playing time against the Rams.
“Zion is right on track,” Staley said. “He’s a very complete football player. We felt like that’s what we were getting when we drafted him.”
Next to Johnson is the truest starting position battle ongoing for the Chargers. Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins III have been splitting practice snaps equally at right tackle. Staley said both will play Saturday.
Probably more important in the evaluation will be the Chargers’ two joint practices next week against Dallas. In that setting, Norton and Pipkins will face better competition.
But this date against the Rams is another step in determining who wins the No. 1 job and who opens the season as the swing tackle.
The No. 2 running back
After Austin Ekeler, the Chargers have three candidates — Isaiah Spiller, Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III — vying for playing time at running back.
Spiller is the most intriguing prospect because the Chargers are still figuring what they have in the rookie fourth-round pick.
“The one thing about Isaiah is he’s not impressed by the NFL,” Staley said. “He feels like he belongs. He has confidence in himself. I think he carries himself that way.”
Entering his second season, Rountree said the competition among the running backs has been nothing but healthy.
“Every day we come in we go to work and we help each other,” he said. “We don’t cause a hostility. We don’t do that. Everybody comes in, helps each other.”
A significant factor in this three-way tussle could be special teams, where the Chargers are trying to improve after a recent run of — at best — mediocrity. Spiller, Kelley and Rountree all have been practicing with the kicking teams.
Defensive line depth
After struggling against the run in 2021, the Chargers signed three defensive linemen in free agency and drafted a fourth.
That fourth addition — Otito Ogbonnia, a fifth-round pick out of UCLA — figures to play plenty against the Rams.
The Chargers have given Ogbonnia some practice time with the first team because they wanted to see him against legitimate NFL offensive linemen.
“He’s shown that he can hold his own out here,” Staley said. “He just needs to keep improving. I like his mindset, though. He’s been a guy that we’re sure glad we drafted.”
Breiden Fehoko, Joe Gaziano and Forrest Merrill all are battling for backup roles, each having made plays during training camp.
Something else to watch Saturday will be if Jerry Tillery plays. Staley has talked about Tillery, a 2019 first-round pick, still trying to find his way in the NFL. Last preseason, Tillery was held out of all three games.
Young defensive backs
Staley loves stockpiling secondary players, and the Chargers drafted three of them this year: JT Woods, Ja’Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard. All three have shown potential over the last two weeks and should play Saturday.
If Woods develops quickly enough, his presence would give the Chargers more options in deploying Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr., something Staley talked about immediately after drafting Woods.
In a bit of a surprise at the time, veteran cornerback Michael Davis started two preseason games a year ago. He now finds himself farther down the depth chart and competing for playing time.
There is no better way to try to decipher the back end of an NFL roster than watching who’s employed on the kick coverage and return teams.
Players such as fullback Zander Horvath, linebacker Cole Christiansen and tight end Hunter Kampmoyer will be on display against the Rams and trying to prove their value and versatility.
The Chargers are looking to bolster their special teams and made sweeping changes after last season, including bringing in a new coordinator in Ryan Ficken.
Saturday will offer the first glimpse of any progress that has been made.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.