Is McKinney the Heir Apparent at Nose Tackle?

A.J. Smith always plans two to three years in advance, so he's already on the lookout for an eventual replacement for 32-year-old Jamal Williams. The first question Smith must answer: is Williams' replacement already on the roster? Chargers expert Michael Lombardo takes a look at backup Brandon McKinney and analyzes his long-term future.

Brandon McKinney has played his way into a prominent role on defense since joining the Chargers as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State in 2006. He spent the first half of his rookie season on the practice squad before being called up to the active roster in time for San Diego's playoff push.

McKinney saw time in a half-dozen games in 2006, finishing with a modest two tackles. His impact was far greater in 2007, when he played in 14 games (including two starts) and recorded 21 tackles. His breakout games came in Week 14 against the Tennessee Titans, when he notched a career-high six tackles.

As is the case with most defensive linemen in the 3-4 defense, the numbers don't accurately reflect McKinney's impact on the field. The stout nose tackle (6 foot 2, 324 lbs.) has the size to hold up at the point of attack and the quickness to get off blocks and make plays in the backfield.

NT Brandon McKinney
Otto Greule Jr./Getty

However, there is a noticeable drop-off between All Pro Jamal Williams and McKinney. McKinney lacks the power and leverage to demand and defeat double-teams. He also lacks Williams' ability to collapse the pocket and force quarterbacks to scramble into the arms of San Diego's edge rushers.

Nonetheless, there are some areas where the lighter, quicker McKinney is superior to Williams. McKinney has the speed to chase down screens and slow-developing runs from behind. Also, he has the versatility to play some defensive end on early downs.

Are these positive attributes enough to earn McKinney heir apparent status? Probably not. The 3-4 defense is predicated on have a nose tackle who can jam up the middle and keep the linebackers clean. McKinney has yet to prove dominant enough to start at such a prominent position.

What McKinney has proven is the ability to be effective in spot duty, which is essential when playing for a D-line coach like Wayne Nunnely, who loves to rotate his players to keep the starters fresh. McKinney's best shot is to earn a multi-year contract as a backup, similar to the five-year, $4.1 million deal signed by Jacques Cesaire in 2006.

As for the search for the next Jamal Williams? That will have to wait for another year.

Lightning Quick

Looking for an outside-the-box answer for landing Williams' eventual replacement? Click here to learn how the Bolts could reel in another franchise nose tackle.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.

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