The Chargers 2013 second-round pick, Manti Te’o, caught another tough break Friday night spraining his left foot. For San Diego fans, flashbacks have already started as Te’o missed most of the preseason (and the first three games of the regular season) with a foot sprain last year. While the injury is different from the one a season ago, and apparently not as serious, the Chargers will be without the former Notre Dame standout during their third preseason game. As this is the game considered the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, how do the Chargers plan to replace one of their starting inside linebackers?
Officially on the depth chart, Reggie Walker is listed behind Manti Te’o at inside backer. Walker is, and has been, a special teams ace throughout his career, and did well in spot duty last year. The former Arizona Cardinal started six games for San Diego last season — albeit at outside linebacker — finishing the year with 36 tackles and three sacks. Walker is an excellent depth player who has the ability to see significant defensive snaps, but the Chargers may have another player on the roster who is a better fit.
Kavell Conner came over to San Diego from Indianapolis this offseason as a free agent. The seventh-round pick in 2010 brings experience and familiarity (he was college teammates with Marcus Gilchrist and Crezdon Butler) to the Chargers defense, but perhaps most importantly, he adds speed. The biggest knock on Conner coming out of college was his size. Most believed he was too small to make it in the NFL even though he had the speed to cover sideline to sideline. The former Clemson Tiger proved doubters wrong starting 36 games at inside backer for the Indianapolis Colt including a 104-tackle season in 2011. Thus far, he has made a career out of exceeding expectations, and again, he may have a chance to be a starter in the NFL.
One knock on Manti Te’o has been his speed. While we could spend time picking apart what Te’o hasn’t done of the field, quite honestly, he hasn’t really had the time to develop yet. He only started 13 games last season and was knocked out of the playoffs with a concussion. This year, San Diego hoped he could take a big leap forward, and he still can, but for now Kavell Conner has a chance to steal some of the spotlight.
Conner has recorded six tackles (three in each game) thus far in preseason, and has swarmed to the ball consistently. He can bring something next to other starting inside backer — Donald Butler — Te’o couldn’t, and that is exceptional speed. I still believe Te’o is the long-term answer next to Butler, and hopefully these two will make up the dynamic duo San Diego has hoped for in the future. But for now, I am very interested to see if Conner can elevate the play of a linebacking unit that has struggled defending the run so far in the exhibition season.
The Bolts will square off against a team who loves the run the ball this Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers. It will be a good test for the interior of the Chargers defense. Hopefully, the defense fairs better this week and the shakeup in the starting lineup creates some sort of chemistry. If not, we may already be seeing a potential weakness for San Diego this season.