Costa Mesa – As the Chargers’ offensive line coach, Frank Smith was pushing for Rashwan Slater to be available at pick number 13, but it seemed unrealistic for an offensive tackle to be bypassed by 12 teams in the first round. Who was the genius to do this year’s draft.
After the 10 picks were announced, Smith and the Chargers began to believe in their chances of landing Slater, the top prospect from Northwestern.
“It was like, ‘Holy cow, this might work,'” Smith recalled of draft night. “When we got him, it was perfect. Honestly, we didn’t think he would be there and now he is here. We are so lucky every day because he is exactly what we thought he would be.”
Slater was the final piece in the Chargers’ offseason plans to rebuild the offensive line. He was plugged into left tackle next to internal offensive lineman and free-agent acquirers Corey Linsley, Matt Feeler and Ode Abushi.
Expectations are high on Brian Bulaga, as well as four newcomers, to defend franchise quarterback Justin Herbert and turn the Chargers into playoff contenders.
Herbert was a third and longest sensation as a rookie last season and was not facing constant pressure in the pocket. It made for good highlight plays, but the Chargers knew they were asking for too much from their young signal caller.
Linsley, the prized center from Green Bay, was brought in to make Herbert’s life easier with blocking and communication. Slater was drafted to protect Herbert’s blind side for many years to come.
Feeler and Abushi were added to defend Herbert and to execute the Chargers’ outside zone running scheme after the ground game was disabled last season.
But these are just hopes. There is no word on how the new looking offensive line will perform till the start of the game and it will not be the first easy Test.
The Chargers began the season on Sunday against the Washington football team and its brutal defensive line with four former first-round picks.
Edge rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat and defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daren Payne have established chemistry and they look to stop the Chargers’ offensive line from finding its own in a Week 1 matchup.
“True competitors always want expectations high,” Smith said of the lineman embracing the first Test. “If you don’t, why come to the arena? Why go to the challenge?”
Slater had an impressive training camp and quickly showed why he was considered one of the best prospects in the draft. He displayed athleticism and strength, sought advice from experienced offensive linemen and carried star edge rusher Joy Bosa in practice.
That’s why Slater found success against Young in college and rose to the top of most draft rankings. But Young is not the same player at Ohio State. He has over a year of experience in the NFL and has quickly established himself as a top edge.
“He’s made big strides since he got into the NFL,” Slater said. “He is a much more sophisticated player than I ever saw in college. I am excited to do it again. It’s really cool to be able to do that matchup in my first game – that’s what I’ve gone against. I am so excited to have it.”
“I’ve made moves since then. I don’t really think that last matchup has any sort of factor in that. It’s about Justin defending, moving the ball. I’m going to help us win. Whatever I can do.”
Slater said that he is comfortable making his NFL debut because of his fight with Bossa at training camp. The rookie pushed the premier edge rusher and earned his respect.
“We’ve had some great battles,” Bossa said. “He’s a really good player. He’s a good youngster who only keeps getting better and he’s smart, quick and has a strong hand.
There could be many reasons for Slater to hold on to the 13th pick in the draft, but one could be that he doesn’t have the prototypical shape for a left tackle position.
But Smith wasn’t concerned about Slater’s size as he remembers how successful Brad Hopkins was when he played for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans from 1993 to 2005. Hopkins was small in size, but he made up for it with athleticism and strength.
Slater has those physical prowess and combines it with an average streak that comes out during practice and game days.
Smith said of Slater, “Some people can be confused because they see this nice guy as a very well thought out person who communicates well.” “But inside, you see it. It’s fire to be the best. And it doesn’t go out all the time, but when it does, you go, ‘Yeah, there is.'”
Slater has been as good as advertised, but the Chargers need Bulaga as much as the rookie this season.
Bulga was in and out of games last season due to injuries and repeated that pattern in training camp. But he has stayed away from injury reports for the Chargers’ regular-season opener at FedExField.
With high hopes the initial five will be together for Week 1 in the nation’s capital.
“We have high hopes for the first game,” Linsley said.