Season in Review: Defensive Ends

The top defensive end tandem, Marcellus Wiley and Ray Lee Johnson, in the league returned to defend their crown in 2002 for the San Diego Chargers. The crown being the top defensive end sack tandem in the league as they had 22.5 sacks combined in 2001. The Bolts expected the same intensity this year, but the unit came up short.

Marcellus Wiley, 6-4, 275 pounds, started his usual comical and jovial attitude in preseason. During camp practices he could be heard singing, "San Diego… Super Chargers… San Diego… Chargers, Chargers". In good spirits, as always, we thought he would again dominate the left side of the line with his quick up the field burst and winning persona.

Despite all his comic outbursts, which have made him famous, the funniest moment of the season came when he intercepted a pass against Arizona and returned it 40 yards. It was perhaps the slowest 40-yard dash in the history of the NFL. Now when you think of a defensive end you think of a fast edge rusher who has a non-stop motor and can get to the quarterback. If that is the rationale, then surely Wiley, 28, has lost a step and especially after seeing him lumber down the field after that interception, his only one of the year. He did win AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts against Arizona.

Wiley missed two games this season with an abdominal pull and bilateral groin strain that he suffered in the loss to Denver in early October. Certainly those are two injuries that will affect mobility. After consecutive years where Wiley produced double digits in sacks, this year he contributed with six. The lack of Wiley getting to the quarterback with consistent pressure put more emphasis on the Chargers secondary, which was not up to the task. Pressure makes the quarterback hurry throws, who in turn will make the occasional errant pass that a defensive back can make a play on. Without pressure, the secondary must stay in coverage longer, and the possibility of a receiver getting open multiplies. Wiley did play well against the run during the season but his numbers were still down.

Another disturbing trend was the lack of big plays by Wiley. Last season he forced five fumbles, this year only one. He also contributed 36 tackles, down from 47 a year ago. So what is the take on him for next year?

The Chargers have lofty expectations for Wiley, so much so John Butler gave him a vote of confidence, and challenged him to play well next year saying, "There's somebody else we didn't mention who played with a lot of heart and a lot of toughness this year under a lot of adverse situations physically, he just wasn't the same guy and that happens unfortunately, and nobody feels worse about it than he did, I could tell in his eyes I have been with him for so long. Next year I expect the greatness to come right back out. Those things happen during the course of the year. You gotta fight through it."

Wiley may be among the many that asked to get their contract restructured. Wiley signed a six year deal worth $40 million, the richest contract the Chargers have ever dolled out, and it included a $9 million dollar signing bonus. His cap figure this year will top $7 million and the numbers will continue to rise in subsequent years. If he wants the Chargers to stay competitive for years to come, and show he is a team player besides the exemplary dedication within the community, he will follow suit and give some cap relief.

We do expect a bounce back season for Wiley next season, but he cannot do it alone. He needs help from the interior of the line. They must command double teams to free Wiley up to make plays. If Wiley is keyed upon again it will be a long defensive year for San Diego in 2003.

Ray Lee Johnson, 6-3, 272 pounds, bookends the right side of the line for the Chargers. Johnson is a life long Charger, and regressed this season as well. After having 9.5 sacks last year, he had 6.5 this year, which led the team. Even with his 6.5 sacks he did not get pressure on the quarterback on a consistent basis.

We do not really think Wiley lost a step, but Johnson surely did. He seemed slow out there all season and with no injury concerns the 10-year vet may be in his final year as a Bolt despite having a contract for two more years.

John Butler has talked of getting younger. Johnson has never been a great pass rusher, but rather a stable one that can play the run well exemplified by his 40 tackles this past season to lead all defensive linemen. He is at his best when there is a dominating presence on the other side of him, and complimentary players who take some of the heat off of him in the interior of the defensive line.

Johnson is due $3 million in base salary in 2003 and the number increases in 2004. He may be one of the players Butler refers to when he says, "Sometimes it even helps the player stay around and have some more time in the NFL. So they are not run out in certain situations. It all depends; each one is a different case."

Also, Johnson did not force a single fumble all year long. For a defense that is high on winning the turnover battle, the defensive ends did little to create opportunities. More telling is he had zero 3rd down sacks on the season. Wiley by contrast had five of his sacks on third down. Not exactly big play material from Johnson.

Adrian Dingle, 6-3, 272 pounds was the top sub for the Chargers. Dingle started just three games for the Bolts but was used extensively during the season. The fourth year player displayed a nice push up field and was able to get some good pressure when he played. He had 1.5 sacks in the games he started and 4 sacks overall, a career high.

He did tail off after a strong start and had zero sacks in the second half of the season. All of his sacks did come on the road, something that takes the crowd out of the game, but all came with the Chargers ahead, and no game changing play was made. Count Dingle among the many who forced no fumbles. Dingle has the speed but may need more playing time to find his rhythm.

Dingle contributed 25 tackles and the Chargers are now faced with a tough decision. Dingle will become an unrestricted free agent, meaning he is a Player with four years or more of NFL experience and can sign with their own team or any other team in the NFL. If he leaves the Chargers, the team that signs him can do so without having to award the Bolts compensation. This past season he made $563K as a base salary. He will command more if the Chargers hope to retain him. His best years lie ahead of him, and the Chargers need the quality depth at the end position.

Otis Leverette, 6-6, 278 pounds, was the only other end on the roster. The Chargers claimed Leverette off waivers from the Washington Redskins on November 19, 2002. He did not see any action as a Charger. Leverette is signed through 2003 at a cheap price and may stick on the roster due to that.

With only four defensive ends on the roster and Johnson getting up there in age, the Chargers will be looking to upgrade this position. Dingle should be brought back and Johnson and Wiley will stay, but both may be asked to restructure. Depth is needed here to keep these guys fresh throughout the season.


Denis Savage can be reached at: Denis Savage

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