The signs were there. He played in the weak MAC conference. He was one dimensional. He was callow. He had stretches of production-less play. Worst of all, he was prone to the trainer’s table. But the Chargers still selected Larry English with their 16th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, thinking they’d just acquired a top-flight pass-rusher that they could team with Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.
At Northern Illinois, English was the best defensive player in the conference. He’d been the conference’s MVP twice and voted to the all-MAC team thrice. He racked up 31.5 sacks through a combination of blistering speed and explosiveness off the line to go with an endless engine. He beat offensive tackles off the edge with ease it seemed, blowing by them with such quickness that many were only getting off the line when he was in the backfield. It was the kind of ability that appealed to the Chargers’ A.J. Smith, the general manager, and Jimmy Raye, the director of player personnel, two men who were looking to add to their already loaded linebacking group.
They didn’t mind the questionable background of English, especially the conference he was coming out of. The MAC had produced players in the past, but there were still questions. The majority of the NFL hesitated on selecting small-school players because their chances of panning out were less likely than the prospects from bigger schools. The MAC was talented, but it wasn’t like the acclaimed SEC or even the Big 10. Still, the Chargers supported their selection when questioned.
“Absolutely not,” Raye said to Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego when asked about questions about the level of competition. “Especially if a guy dominates that level. It’s still Division I football. A lot of good players have come out of that league. … If he can play at that level that he did in that conference, we feel like that can translate to this league too.”
The biggest transition for English to the NFL wasn’t even the speed of it; it was going from a three-point stance to a two-point. He was primarily a defensive end at NIU and had little experience standing up. He had a lot to learn, including recognition, awareness and leverage.
In the 3-4, he wouldn’t be getting off the line with a low center of gravity that naturally enabled him to sink his shoulder underneath that of the tackle’s and turn the corner like when he was an end. He wouldn’t be just a C-gap rusher that could play the pass all the time. Rather, he was an all-around defender that had to set the edge against the run and rush the passer with proper hand use and leverage to get underneath the pads of blockers like he did in college. In short, he was a full-blown linebacker – a tall task for a small schooler.
“I’ve obviously been comfortable at defensive end the past five years in the scheme that I played in college, but the more I learned about the 3-4 scheme, I think my athletic ability, just the type of football player that I am, I think that it’s extremely conducive to this scheme,” English said to Jerry Burnes of the Northern Star when asked about the new scheme. “I think I’ll fit perfectly in it.”
In his rookie season, English played 16 games with two starts. He notched two sacks and 14 hurries, with the former coming against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4 and Denver Broncos in Week 6. Neither sack was entirely impressive and showed just how much learning he had to do.
Specifically, his sack against the Broncos came from the weak-side defensive end position, where he attempted to sink his shoulder and crease the corner. He failed to do so, struggling with balance and only recording a sack because he spun out of control back inside, where then-quarterback Kyle Orton was standing.
Going into his second season, the team had more hope for English, but it wouldn’t last long. He suffered a foot injury in training camp that plagued him through the preseason and the regular season, making it difficult for him to play full-time. He registered half a sack before being forced to sit out six weeks in between Week3 3 and 9 in favor of surgery.
Despite logging a sack and a half following the injury, his development was slowed, making it difficult to improve on his hand usage and footwork, both areas he struggled mightily with coming out of NIU.
Critics immediately started to wonder if English would ever live up to his billing. The foot injury was a first for him in a Chargers jersey, but not the first of his football career. He had injuries dating back to his senior year in high school, where he suffered a sprained ankle and was forced to sit out multiple games.
It was no different at NIU. In 2004, his first year, he suffered a shoulder injury and missed the final 11 games. A medical redshirt granted him an additional year of eligibility, but it wouldn’t be much different the following years. In 2007, he tore his ACL against Texas Christian University in the Poinsettia Bowl game. And then in his senior year of 2008, he suffered a pectoral injury in spring game, as well as a broken hand in fall camp. The former healed and the latter he played with through the season, notching eight sacks and two hurries with six pins in his hand, according to CFB Stats.
In March of 2011, English went under the knife again for surgery on the same foot he’d previously injured. Something about the foot wasn’t right and he needed more screws.
“They put another screw in because something was off,” English said that year. “The doctors said it had hadn’t healed right or the foot was re-broken. Either way, we had to get it right during the offseason. It feels a lot better now and I’m optimistic about my foot’s long term health. Hopefully the second time’s the charm.”
After two injuries to the same foot, English finally seemed ready to start what was really his sophomore campaign in 2012. The injuries limited him to just 13 total games in the two seasons prior and even worse, stunted his development. He didn’t have pass-rush moves and his once blistering speed off the line seemed to have been sapped by the injuries. The lack of development would hinder him from producing yet again, as he was limited to one sack and five hurries in 14 games.
A lack of production wasn’t going to cut it in 2013. English needed to produce more than he had in previous years combined. Another two sacks and half a dozen pressures just wasn’t going to be enough, especially in a contract-year. But he still hadn’t gotten a full off-season of rehab in since his rookie year, meaning he’d also missed out on the allotted time devoted to honing his craft. Unsurprisingly, he was further behind than others who came into the league in 2009, such as the Green Bay Packers’ Clay Matthews, who logged more than 40 sacks in his first four years. To stick on the Chargers’ roster long-term, he’d have to start producing like Matthews and living up to the No. 16 overall selection.
The 2013 season has become hard for English, though. Although he had a sack and seven pressures through the first three weeks, he wasn’t generating enough of a pass-rush. His hand use still wasn’t good enough. When he engaged with offensive tackles, he was immediately shut down because he didn’t know how to disengage or even lock out his arms consistently to create separation.
Against the arch-rival Oakland Raiders in Week 5, his lack of development truly showed. He struggled to get by left tackle Khalif Barnes, a former second round pick that didn’t exactly stand for quality.
On one play, English stood at weak-side linebacker outside of Barnes’ left shoulder and attempted a speed rush wide of the pocket. He took three steps initially and jabbed his left foot inside before shooting to his right. Pass-rushers typically do these kind of moves, but they also use their hands in the process; English didn’t. He left his chest exposed and as expected, Barnes punched it, knocking English off his route and wide of the pocket. A wasted rush.
Later in the game, he tried beating right tackle Matt McCants, a former sixth-round selection of the New York Giants. McCants was tall and long, but incredibly raw and the type of player English, who was in a four-point stance, should have feasted on.
At the snap, he fired off the line and ran straight downhill. He took four steps before McCants, who was kick-sliding deep, reached his arms back and punched English in the chest. English, again, hadn’t raised his hands up and was immediately losing leverage at the point of attack. His speed-rush went to waste once again.
Two weeks later, it looked like, for at least one play, English figured out how to use his hands.
Lined up in a four-point stance at the five-technique, English was set to pick apart the Jaguars’ right tackle. He exploded forward off his left foot and pointed his body at the blocker with his right, then took another step and raised his arms up. Once he raised them, he lowered his pad level but didn’t lock out his elbows. Consequently, his arms weren’t extended, making it difficult for him to play with power. Unable to move the blocker, he ran his right shoulder into the tackle’s body but barely moved him.
For English, it was speed or bust, and more often than not, it’s been bust.
The speed he once had was erased by the numerous leg injuries he’d suffered earlier in his career. He didn’t look like the player the Chargers had drafted in 2009. He was still raw and reliant on speed like the old English, but he was a shell of the athlete. That made him essentially useless on the field, but at least he was on the field. That is until Week 10.
On third-and-7 in the first minute of the second quarter, English lined up at left outside linebacker in the Chargers’ sub-package outside of Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin. At the snap, he came downhill in a hurry, running straight for six yards before planting his inside foot, cutting inside and dragging down Peyton Manning for his third sack of the year.
After, there was no celebration. English was down in pain and leaning on his right shoulder. He tore his pectoral muscle and after an MRI confirmed it, he was done for the year.
On November 12, the Chargers officially placed English on the injured reserve list, ending his season for good and likely signaling an end to his Chargers career.