Defense Integrating New Faces

The theme of the San Diego Chargers' offseason has been continuity. Whether it was choosing a new coaching staff or spending big money on Kris Dielman, the team justified every decision by citing the importance of continuity. However, change is inevitable in the NFL and this year's Chargers will sport a different look – and that goes beyond the new uniforms.

The unit set to undergo the most change is defense, where three reserves from 2006 are expected to move into the starting line-up in 2007. Inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm, along with strong safety Bhawoh Jue, will likely be starters on opening day.

Cooper and Wilhelm have both been with the team for four seasons while being groomed for the larger roles they are about to assume. Cooper is an instinctive player who reads and reacts quickly. He has terrific speed for chasing running backs sideline to sideline and for blitzing up the middle or off the edge.

Wilhelm is a bigger and more powerful player who is most effective against the run. He has good straight-line speed but can look stiff in coverage. However, he does have two career interceptions despite limited playing time.

Cooper and Wilhelm have all the ability necessary to succeed. Where they will struggle initially is in replacing the coverage skills and leadership possessed by Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey, respectively.

Although Godfrey could still return, it would likely be in a more limited capacity. Cooper and Wilhelm both signed five-year contract extensions in 2006 and are considered by General Manager A.J. Smith to be the future at the position.

"Stephen is one of our young fast-rising players," Smith said. "He's a hard worker; he's tough and physical."

As for Wilhelm: "Matt is one of this team's rising young defensive players. He has played solid football when called upon at the inside ‘backer position."

Joining them in the new-look back-seven will be Jue, who is expected to replace the departed Terrence Kiel. Jue would have been a starter in 2006 had he not been limited by the effects of knee surgery the prior offseason.

Jue started 14 games at free safety in 2005 and led the secondary in interceptions that season. The team is leaning towards playing him at strong safety in 2007, because it likes his ability to play press coverage from that alignment.

"Jue is better than Kiel," said one former Chargers coach. "We'd like to keep him close to the line because he can cover like a corner."

The 2006 defense ranked No. 10 overall, No. 7 against the run and No. 1 in sacks. If new coordinator Ted Cottrell can properly integrate these three fresh faces into his already talented unit, those lofty statistics should only improve.

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