What a difference a year makes.

Manti Te’o and Donald Butler were the San Diego Chargers’ two starting middle linebackers in 2015. The latter is no longer a member of the team.




Butler was cut this offseason. A big reason for his departure was because of 2015 second-round pick Denzel Perryman. At the time, Perryman was a bit of a surprise selection in the second round. It felt more like a luxury than a need for the Chargers.

It proved to be one of general manager Tom Telesco’s best picks. Perryman played in 14 games (nine starts) and finished with 67 total tackles and two sacks. Pro Football Focus rated him their No. 2 inside linebacker over the last seven games of the season. He was the hard-hitting thumper the Chargers needed.

Perryman is set to start alongside Te’o (who found a new workout partner) in 2016. Look for the young duo to continue to build chemistry and play well together.

But there’s an issue nobody seems to talk about, and that’s the lack of depth behind Perryman and Te’o. Actually, there’s nobody behind them on the roster. Kavell Conner was also released in March.

As the great Achilles would say, is there no one else!?”

We’ve seen what can happen with no quality backup. The Chargers had a chance against the Denver Broncos in the 2013 Divisional Round, but that chance ended when Bront Bird came in and was asked to cover Julius Thomas, which led to a game-sealing completion on third-and-17 late in the fourth quarter.

Bront Bird: nobody will remember his name. There is a good chance the Chargers can find a quality player in the 2016 NFL Draft, though.

Inside linebacker is not a pressing need, but the Bolts can find good depth in the fifth or sixth round (especially in a deep draft class). They’ve done it before when they drafted outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel in the fifth round last year.

Pro Football Spot writer Jake Hefner and I take a look at two players who could be steals for the Chargers.

 

Nick Kwiatkoski, West Virginia:

In “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s William Wallace is the epitome of leadership. He was an inspirational guy who you were willing to fight side-by-side with.

The same can be said for Nick Kwiatkoski. He was the passionate leader of the Mountaineers’ defense from 2013-15.

Ironically, Kwiatkoski is as underrated as they come. The 6-foot-2, 243-pounder is a versatile player who transitioned from safety to linebacker. He played all three linebacker positions (Will, Sam and Mike) for West Virginia.

Here is NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein’s analysis on Kwiatkoski:

“Kwiatkoski is known for his weight room work and has transitioned his body type from safety to inside linebacker. He has some physical limitations that could prevent him from becoming a full-time starter, but his mean streak and ability to finish as a tackler could serve him well as a special teamer which is likely how he will have to make a team.”

Kwiatkoski has a nasty side to him—in a good way. He’s a tough player who will set the tone of the game with a big hit. He’s also what you want in a linebacker in terms of production. He had 80-plus tackles in each of his last three seasons at West Virginia (led his team in that category each year). He also finished with six career interceptions.

I’ve told you his stats in Exhibit A above, so here is Kwiatkoski in action in Exhibit B below.

fourth in the nation amongst linebackers against the run (+21.7 run defense grade) and sixth in coverage (+9.0 coverage grade).

While Kwiatkoski may not have a blazing 40-yard dash time (4.73—15th among linebackers), he shows good speed and agility when he’s on the playing field, and that’s what counts. One of his main strengths is that he’s very instinctive. He can easily find the ball carrier and make a stop in the backfield. He made 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2014 and 10 in 2015, per NFL.com.

Kwiatkoski reminds me of former Jaguars and Ravens linebacker Daryl Smith. Now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Smith is a versatile linebacker who excels in the running game. He was one of the top tacklers at the linebacker spot in his prime. He’s also well known for his ability to drop back in coverage. Smith is a durable and underrated playmaker who has a similar frame as Kwiatkoski.

Kwiatkoski isn’t perfect, though. He’s not the turnover machine you’d want him to be (only three forced fumbles in three years). He’s also inconsistent at shedding blocks. He gets stuck at times when taking on bigger linemen, which will be a problem in the NFL. He doesn’t have the explosiveness or high-end moves to beat tackles. The second he attacks with his shoulder and not with his hands he’ll lose those battles.

When it’s draft day, Kwiatkoski will be on the Telesco’s board. While the assumption is bold, he’s the type of player Telesco looks for: an overachiever with great character. He’s a workout warrior, tackling machine and intelligent football player who will thrive if he can make a smooth transition to the pros.

Overall, Kwiatkoski would add much-needed depth and could even create competition at the inside linebacker position.

 

Antwoine Williams, Georgia Southern:

If an NFL defensive coordinator wanted to create his version of “The Six Million Dollar Man” in the form of a linebacker, he would employ that being with these prototypical traits: instincts, leadership, decision-making, tackling and balance.

Now, imagine all of those abilities in the form of a 6-foot-3, 245-pound specimen with 4.7 speed, 33 7/8-inch arms and 9 3/4-inch hands.

The result: Georgia Southern inside linebacker Antwione Williams.

A “do everything linebacker” with a variety of intangibles at his disposal, the 22-year-old brings a combination of attitude and intelligence to the game.

Williams possesses deceptive sideline-to-sideline speed for his size and diagnoses plays with tremendous read-and-react capability. Like Kwiatkoski, Williams’ ability to close quickly on ball carriers also draws early comparisons to veteran linebacker Smith.

Playing for a college football program that has seen a recent resurgence, the former Eagle played a considerable role in assisting Georgia Southern to consecutive nine-win seasons over the past two years in the Sun Belt Conference. Williams produced solid numbers during his final year recording 107 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and four forced fumbles. Here are highlights of said production.

Leading up to the East-West Shrine game in January, Williams was a defensive standout in practices. Though he played on limited reps during the game, he ended up finishing the contest with three solo tackles, which tied for fifth on the team, and was exceptional covering receivers who came across the middle of the field. TFY Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline praised the young linebacker for his play.

“Williams is another small-school defender who both looked and played the part,” Pauline wrote. “He was the most physically impressive linebacker on the East squad and dominated in run defense.”

While Williams didn’t receive an invitation to Indianapolis, he impressed scouts during his pro day by recording a 35-inch vertical, 9-foot-10 broad jump and 23 reps on the bench press, which would have tied him for third amongst linebackers that participated at the NFL Combine.

Early draft predictions on Williams have been all over the board as of late. Luke Easterling of Bleacher Report ranked Williams as the 21st-best inside linebacker of the 2016 class and expects a sixth-round selection for him. On the other hand, Pauline believes that Williams’ stock is on the rise and could be a middle-round pick.

With the Chargers cutting ties with Butler and Conner and picking nobody up in free agency, it leaves them searching for depth. Williams would add strength and speed to San Diego’s defense. He would fit best as a weakside inside linebacker in defensive coordinator John Pagano’s 3-4 defense, but he does have the ability to play all linebacker positions.

Again, Williams is intelligent, reliable, tough and powerful. In short, he is a “football player” and could be a late-round gem for the Chargers.