Ron Milus could barely turn his head Monday as he greeted reporters after an off-season workout. The Chargers defensive backs coach had surgery in January to have a plate and 10 screws inserted in his neck, which was injured in December when he was hit in the head by a Kellen Clemens pass during a red-zone drill.
“I got tired of the pain, so at the end of the season I said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to get it done,’ ” said Milus, who last week discarded the neck brace he wore for four months. “There’s not much pain now, just stiffness.”
A 12-minute conversation about a unit shaping up as the strongest positional group on the team seemed to loosen up Milus. The Chargers secondary could be a real pain in the neck for opposing quarterbacks and pass-catchers next season.
To a group that allowed the third-fewest passing yards (197.3) per game in 2017, the Chargers added first-round pick Derwin James, the versatile Florida State standout who has the speed, strength, tackling and coverage skills to play strong safety, free safety or linebacker.
Casey Hayward, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the best cover corners in the NFL, signed a three-year, $36-million contract extension in March. Cornerback Trevor Williams, who had a breakout 2017 with two interceptions and 13 pass breakups, returns.
Hard-hitting strong safety Jahleel Addae is coming off a season in which he had 66 tackles and 30 assists. Rookie Desmond King and third-year pro Adrian Phillips were valuable nickel and dime-package coverage men and run-defenders in 2017.
Cornerback Jason Verrett, a Pro Bowl selection in 2015, is on track to return after missing most of 2016 and 2017 because of knee surgeries, and Jaylen Watkins, a former Philadelphia Eagles defender who signed as a free agent, can play corner or safety.
“We probably have more depth now than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Milus, in his sixth year with the Chargers, “especially with the addition of Derwin.”
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound James, the 17th overall pick in the draft, poses a bit of a dilemma for the Chargers: Where does he best fit into defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme, in which the free safety is more of a center fielder and last line of defense and the strong safety plays much closer to the line?
“We’ll figure it out this month and try to see what our best combination is on the field,” Milus said. “With his size, his speed, the way he plays as a physical player — ideally, you would say, yeah, get him close to the line of scrimmage. But who knows? Right now, we’re just trying to watch this guy grow.”
James, rated one of the top five defensive rookie-of-the-year candidates for 2018 by Pro Football Focus, played strong safety in the three-day rookie minicamp that ended Sunday and was there for the first off-season workout for veterans and first-year players on Monday.
At some point, Milus said, the Chargers will move James to free safety to see what kind of range he has. If James stays at strong safety, Addae, King or Watkins could play free safety.
“We’ve got a lot of options,” Milus said. “This will be interesting, especially the first five, six practices, as we try to figure it out. Nothing has been set in stone.”
The same can be said for the status of Verrett, who has been limited by knee injuries to one game — the 2017 season opener — since Week 5 of 2016. Verrett is a limited participant in drills this week, but Milus is encouraged by his progress.
“He’s a lot further along than he was at this time last year, more so in his mind,” Milus said. “He knows that he’s coming back. He’s got some of that quickness in drills. I see the same burst and explosion I’m used to. Hopefully when he comes back in July he’s full speed, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed 284 times for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 58 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns last season, participated in his first off-season workout Monday with the bitter taste of 2017 in his mouth.
The Chargers rebounded from an 0-4 start to go 9-3 in their final 12 games but finished one win shy of a playoff spot.
“You think about it a lot, just to be that close and taste it,” Gordon said. “I’ve been on the team for three years and haven’t made the playoffs yet, so I was hungry. That was my mission the entire year, to get to the playoffs and see what we can do.
“I just knew if we got in it was going to get real ugly for [other] teams. We were on a roll. We were hot. The guys wanted it. We’re going to take that same feeling [going into 2018] and see how we come out.”
Receiver Nelson Spruce, who spent 2016 on the Rams’ injured-reserve list and most of 2017 on the Chicago Bears’ practice squad, was signed after a Monday workout. The team also signed two players from its rookie minicamp, receiver Justice Liggins and defensive end Patrick Afriyie. … Third-round pick Justin Jones, a defensive lineman from North Carolina State, signed a four-year contract over the weekend, leaving James as the only unsigned draft pick. … James will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Wednesday night’s Angels-Astros game.
DiGiovanna writes for the Los Angeles Times.