Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins III are 'good friends' battling for same Chargers job

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Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, left, talks with offensive tackles Storm Norton.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley talks with offensive tackles Storm Norton (74), Trey Pipkins III (79) and Rashawn Slater (70). Norton and Pipkins are competing for the starting right tackle position. Slater starts at left tackle. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Only one offensive tackle surrendered more sacks last season than Storm Norton did.

Only one gave up more pressures.

Those statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

The rest of the story of Norton’s 2021 performance — that he was the soft spot on an offensive line tasked with protecting franchise quarterback Justin Herbert — came courtesy of everyone else.

On a Chargers offense that ranked among the NFL’s top five in points and yards, no player was more scrutinized than the right tackle.

“As an offensive lineman, you kind of hear it your whole career,” Norton said. “You can’t control what people put out there. But I have a great support system that’s always encouraging me. I’m really thankful for that.”

Entering 2022, right tackle is the lone unsettled spot for this team among the starters, with Norton battling Trey Pipkins III for the No. 1 job.

Injuries likely will impact the rotation among the inside linebackers and certain roles in the secondary are still being sorted out.

But, at least for now, Norton versus Pipkins is it in terms of old-school, training-camp first-team tussles.

The two have been teammates since the Chargers signed Norton in the spring of 2020. They are “good friends” and “locker neighbors” — Norton’s words — and “wired kind of similarly” — Norton’s words again.

“Storm’s my guy,” Pipkins said. “We’ve built up a good relationship. We both understand the competition. It’s not like off the field anything’s awkward. We both realize how this works, what this means for both of us.”

Chargers offensive tackle Storm Norton, left, and offensive guard Matt Feiler take part in minicamp drills on June 1.
Chargers offensive tackle Storm Norton, left, and offensive guard Matt Feiler take part in minicamp drills on June 1. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

The rest of the Chargers’ offensive front consists of accomplished veterans at center (Corey Linsley) and left guard (Matt Feiler) and first-round picks at left tackle (Rashawn Slater) and right guard (Zion Johnson).

Norton and Pipkins both arrived in the NFL from smaller schools and as projects not prospects.

Undrafted out of Toledo in 2017, Norton mostly clung to the fringes of various practice squads before joining the Chargers after the XFL suspended operation.

Pipkins was a 2019 third-round pick out of the University of Sioux Falls, the only place that offered him an opportunity to play coming out of high school.

In the offseason, Norton moved with his wife, Breanna, and their two small children — Ryker, 4, and Kasen, 9 months — to within walking distance of the Chargers’ Costa Mesa headquarters.

He worked out with the team’s training staff and spent time digging deeper into the playbook and his own game.

“I wanted to try to be in the facility as much as I could,” Norton said, “whether that was getting recovery, body work, just being around everybody, showing how much this means to me. It’s something I’m really committed to.”

Along with participating in the team’s offseason activities, Pipkins traveled to Texas to work with Duke Manyweather, a recognized offensive line guru whose program has become very popular among NFL players.

Pipkins said the experience left him feeling stronger and well conditioned but — more notably — wiser. He explained that being around so many accomplished linemen allowed him to expand his mind.

“All the O-line knowledge from the vets who go there is invaluable,” Pipkins said. “It’s the little things I picked up with O-line play, the little technique things that I definitely feel are helping me now.”

Chargers offensive tackle Trey Pipkins III (79) takes part in drills on June 1.
Chargers offensive tackle Trey Pipkins III (79) takes part in drills on June 1. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Norton wasn’t supposed to be the starter last season, but that’s what he became after Bryan Bulaga was injured in the opener.

He played every offensive snap from Week 2 on, except for Week 17, when he missed a game against Denver because of COVID-19.

Norton surrendered nine sacks and 60 pressures. Among all NFL tackles, he ranked 25th in run blocking but 125th in pass blocking, according to PFF.

Pipkins began the season as the Chargers’ big tight end, employed as an extra offensive lineman typically in short-yardage situations.

Yet he struggled so much in that limited role that he lost the job and was inactive for four games starting in late October.

“It was definitely a lower point in my career for sure,” Pipkins said. “But that happens. Everybody has a low point. It’s really about how you bounce back from it. I wasn’t going to pout.”

Pipkins did bounce back, filling in first for Slater at left tackle in Week 15 and then for Norton at right tackle in Week 17.

He gave up no sacks and three pressures in 74 drop-back situations against Kansas City and Denver, according to PFF.

“That was very encouraging,” said Brendan Nugent, the Chargers’ first-year offensive line coach. “He went out and played well. Watching that tape, I was thinking, ‘OK, it’s in there. We just gotta find a way to get it consistent.’”

Nugent said he had similar thoughts while reviewing video of Norton’s play from last season, explaining that both tackles continue to seek more steady production from snap to snap.

Asked last week about the competition at right tackle, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said nothing will be known until the Chargers face another team, adding, “The story’s still to be told on that.”

The Chargers open their preseason schedule Saturday against the Rams. Then they have joint practices with Dallas on Aug. 17-18 before facing the Cowboys in an exhibition.

The next two weeks will tell plenty about the Chargers' right-tackle story.

“You hope sooner than later one guy separates because then you can get those five guys upfront working together,” Nugent said. “But I don’t think it’s going to hurt if it doesn’t happen that way. Maybe they’ll both emerge. We wouldn’t mind having that problem.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.