Chargers' 2021 outlook centers on Justin Herbert-Corey Linsley combination

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Chargers center Corey Linsley and guard Matt Feiler line up during practice in Costa Mesa.
Chargers center Corey Linsley and guard Matt Feiler line up during practice in Costa Mesa. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

He has to snap the ball clearly and then block a defensive lineman and — if things go well — perhaps attempt to take out a linebacker too.

All those things are vital for Corey Linsley, who Tuesday explained another job requirement that’s paramount.

“I’ve said this word about 80 times, but it is about communication,” he said. “The center is the guy talking. So, for me, that’s something you have to [do].”

An argument could be made that Linsley is the second-most important player for the Chargers after Justin Herbert.

He is the main cog of a rebuilt offensive line that must excel in order for this team to receive as much as possible from its young quarterback.

Herbert became the NFL’s top offensive rookie in 2020 playing behind a front that experienced key injuries and graded as one of the poorest in the league.

If the Chargers can better protect Herbert this season and give their running backs more space, this offense could be multifaceted and high-octane.

If the line becomes an issue again, a third consecutive season outside the playoffs might be inevitable regardless of what else happens under new coach Brandon Staley.

“I think the big thing with Corey is we feel like he’s a difference-maker,” Staley said. “There’s a lot of centers that are good players, but who’s a difference-maker? We feel like Corey’s a difference-maker in more ways than one.”

The Chargers put an exact value on Linsley in March when they signed him to a five-year contract worth a guaranteed $26 million. He was the NFL’s highest-paid center until Detroit re-signed Frank Ragnow a few weeks later.

The job now for Linsley, especially as an eighth-year veteran, is to help facilitate all these new pieces jelling into one, the 2021 Chargers preparing to have four new starters on the offensive line.

There is work to be done, certainly. For example, Linsley never had met guard Oday Aboushi in person until Tuesday as the team opened a quick, two-day minicamp.

The Chargers do have nearly three months before they begin the season at Washington, and Linsley suggested the experience among the offensive linemen should ease the transition.

Chargers center Corey Linsley prepares to snap to quarterback Justin Herbert during practice in Costa Mesa.
Chargers center Corey Linsley prepares to snap to quarterback Justin Herbert during practice in Costa Mesa. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With right tackle Bryan Bulaga returning, veteran guard Matt Feiler and rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater are the other newcomers. The Chargers selected Slater in the first round — No. 13 overall — in April.

“It’s easy to work with him,” Linsley said of the rookie. “He’s a humble, talented kid that wants to do well, wants to perform well.”

Still, Linsley very much is at the center of everything for this offense. Herbert’s success will hinge on Linsley’s ability to help identify what the defense is planning to do and then verbalize the needed adjustments up front.

The expectations are significant, Staley noting that Linsley, 29, spent the last seven seasons with Green Bay and another quarterback of renown, Aaron Rodgers.

“You know who he’s been partnering up with in his career, one of the special guys in the league,” Staley said. “We feel like now Justin and Corey can team up to be one of those special tandems in the league.”

The Chargers do have options for Herbert. Along with wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, there’s running back Austin Ekeler, who offers big-play bursts.

On the outside, Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson combined for seven receptions of 50 yards or longer last season. In March, the Chargers signed veteran tight end Jared Cook, who caught 16 touchdown passes over the last two seasons.

Cook joined the team after two seasons in New Orleans. On Tuesday, he said the Chargers “probably have better talent here than we had” with the Saints. This is especially notable because New Orleans made the postseason in 2019 and 2020.

Offensively a year ago, the Chargers finished ninth in total yards and tied for 18th in points, averaging 24 per game.

If Linsley and his new linemates are able to stay healthy and flourish, those rankings should improve.

“I’ve been able to watch him over the past couple years, and he’s really impressive,” Herbert said of Linsley. “He’s one of the best, if not the best. So bringing him here, I’m really excited to play behind him.”

Staley called Linsley “a commander” and referenced his “leadership intangibles.” The Chargers are counting on him to build off a 2020 season in which he earned All-Pro honors, a career first. This franchise never has had an All-Pro center.

“When you have him and Justin Herbert running the show in the middle of your offense,” Staley said, “we feel like that’s going to be a winning edge for us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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