Here’s what you probably know about Joey Bosa: He was the only first-round draft pick who held out all summer. And what was that about, again? Not money, but how the money was going to be distributed or something like that? Anyway, it got sorted out because it always does. And so he joined the Chargers at the end of August, but a hamstring injury promptly put him back out of sight and, this time, out of mind. The injury eventually healed and Bosa made his NFL debut in Week 5. It was a regionally televised game at Oakland—one that, let’s be honest, you maybe saw about a dozen snaps of on the Red Zone channel.
Since then you’ve heard here and there that Bosa has looked good, great even. Good for him, you’ve thought. Bosa’s Chargers, meanwhile, are barely on the outer fringe of playoff contention. And so, unless you’re a Bolts fan, you probably haven’t paid much attention to this year’s No. 3 pick. Which is fine; that’s how it goes.
But you’ll soon look back on this period as that strange time when Bosa was in the NFL but not yet a household name. You’ll think about it the same way you now think about J.J. Watt’s 2011 season, before he became J.J. Watt.
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What makes Bosa special is his abundance of the single most important physical trait an NFL front seven athlete can have: lateral explosiveness. In simplest terms, Bosa moves left and right with remarkable quickness and strength. With this also comes a natural feel for using his hands. And, as his defensive coordinator John Pagano points, out, “he’s somebody that really understands the game.”
Like Watt, who will be regarded as football’s best defensive player as soon as his back is healthy again, Bosa’s primary role is strongside defensive end. Not many years ago, this was a nondescript position. The strong side naturally brings about more double-teams (primarily the tight end helping an offensive tackle), so defenses didn’t put their best players there, just their biggest. But Watt transcended the position, presenting offenses with the dilemma of what to do when there’s a defender who can consistently destroy double-teams.
Bosa doesn’t quite have Watt’s body, but he has many aspects of his game. It didn’t take long for Watt’s role to expand, particularly in passing down sub-packages, where he’s aligned in several different spots. Bosa is on that track already. “I think that was their mind-set in drafting me,” he says. “Being able to use me all over on the defense. And now that we have 50,000 injuries and we’re moving guys around, we need guys to step up like that.”
Two weeks ago against Tennessee, one of those injuries forced Bosa to play outside linebacker in San Diego’s base 3-4, adding a position to the rookie’s résumé that has never been on Watt’s.
“I would say so far we’ve done probably 40 percent of what we want to do with him, maybe 50 percent,” says Pagano. “We’ve done about every slot that you could put him in, but there’s so much more we’re expanding off of the thing. You’ve seen him line up on the same side with Melvin [Ingram], and you’ve seen him opposite. You’ve seen him line up as a linebacker. And just those things alone, to be able to do that type of stuff, gives you a versatile player that you have the ability to create with. He plays with such great technique and hand placement, inside or outside, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m still getting used to standing up,” Bosa says. “I’d say I’m still more comfortable with my hand in the ground, but it’s early. I’ve definitely had better vision standing up, and you get to see the whole offense—any shifts or motion at the last second.” Bosa is saying this over the phone after a November practice. In the background are flutters of voices and clanging. “Some of the guys are messing with me,” he says apologetically. Asked who, he replies “Tenny [Palepoi], the worst D-lineman we have. He came in telling me to tell you he’s the best.” The background laughter crescendos.
“Any time you get around great players like Joey…” Pagano trails off and then decides he’ll put it like this: “Our guys have come together. You start seeing them do the Bosa celebration after an interception for a touchdown, or after a sack, it’s kind of cool.”
In football’s alpha society, popularity comes easier with talent. And remember, this talent is still being served fairly raw. Even by rookie standards, Bosa has had very little opportunity to hone his craft.
“Obviously if I came into camp I would’ve had more time to practice and fix things, but I feel like the only real big thing is my body,” he says. “I definitely have an advantage [right now], my body is fresher, but I also definitely feel a little behind conditioning-wise, which I’m working at every week to get caught up. It’s kind of hard to run during the season—you don’t want to kill yourself. It’s not like I’m out of shape or anything, it’s just hard to get in football shape when you weren’t playing football.”
Missing long stretches of practice is “always a big deal, because you’re losing those techniques and those fundamentals,” Pagano says. “I think the biggest thing that hurt him was the fact that not being here in pads, injury happens.” But “he’s a workhorse. He runs after practice, and I’m not saying a light run—he runs. He’s always working, he’s always taking care of his body, that stuff is important to him. And he’s somebody on our defense that can change the game; he can make the difference. We need him to keep doing the things he’s doing.”
The Chargers have been rocked by injuries. They’ve blown leads and lost close games. Every other team in their division has seven wins. And with San Diego voters having rejected a new stadium proposal earlier this month, it’s unknown where this team will reside next year. Equations like this are how coaching staffs and rosters get overhauled, even when they shouldn’t.
But on the happier side, whatever rough waters still lie ahead, the Charger will at least be navigating them with the NFL’s best young defensive player. And it might not be long before the qualifier young is removed from that label.