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Joey Bosa might have been all the Chargers were missing

The rookie is living up to high expectations.

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NFL: San Diego Chargers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie defensive end Joey Bosa has only seen action in three NFL games, but the San Diego Chargers’ defense already looks much better with him on the field.

It’s not just that Bosa looks good, and it’s not just that the Chargers’ defense has improved since his debut. The No. 3 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft has looked dominant, and his versatility is impressive, particularly after missing so much of the offseason due to the dramatic and lengthy contract negotiations.

Because of the valuable practice time Bosa missed during his holdout, plus an injury, the Chargers kept him on the sideline until Week 5 against the Oakland Raiders. In those first four weeks of the season, San Diego went 1-3, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts. and New Orleans Saints.

They lost these three games by an average of just 3.7 points. In each game, the Chargers allowed their opponents to mount dramatic comebacks, blowing late-game leads that pressure on opposing quarterbacks might have helped preserve. Andrew Luck, for example, is the most-sacked quarterback in the league this season, and the Chargers only managed to bring him down twice.

Considering Bosa’s production over the past three weeks — four sacks, 20 pressures — perhaps he could have given the Chargers the edge they needed to get those crucial stops.

Bosa makes his presence felt immediately

The Chargers are coming off back-to-back wins against two of the stronger teams in the league this season, the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons. Against the Falcons in Week 7, Bosa was a force, sacking quarterback Matt Ryan twice and adding five tackles. Bosa was versatile, too, coming off the edge on both sides of the line.

He brought consistent pressure on Ryan while facing off against Ryan Schraeder, one of the best right tackles in the league according to Pro Football Focus, and Jake Matthews on the left side, a quality tackle in his own right.

Bosa’s first NFL action came against the Raiders, and he finished with five tackles, two sacks, a quarterback hit, and four hurries. He did that while on the field for just 27 of San Diego’s 71 defensive snaps. In limited play, Bosa finished the game fifth on the team in tackles and led the team in sacks in the loss to Oakland.

He did so against a good offensive line, too. The Raiders have allowed just nine sacks and 15 quarterback hurries all season, which makes them the NFL’s most effective line. Bosa is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the sacks that line has allowed so far this season.

Bosa had just one tackle in his first NFL start in Week 6 against Denver, but he was disruptive all game, totaling six pressures and two hits on Trevor Siemian. His tackle for loss also made up for a muffed punt by Travis Benjamin and killed a promising Broncos drive. The Chargers won that one with a final score of 21-13, snapping a 10-game streak of divisional losses and possibly saving head coach Mike McCoy’s job.

The numbers don’t lie

With just three games under his belt, Bosa is already tied with outside linebacker Melvin Ingram as the Chargers’ leaders in sacks. Bosa is second on the team behind Ingram in total quarterback pressures, despite having played one-third the number of snaps.

Bosa also has the most sacks in three games by a rookie since Elvis Dumervil 10 years ago.

Through seven games — and three for Bosa — Pro Football Focus has established that, based on his snap count and productivity, Bosa has actually been better than Broncos outside linebacker and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller at bringing pressure on opposing quarterbacks. According to PFF, Bosa is bringing pressure on average every 4.7 snaps, compared to Miller’s respectable average of every 5.2 snaps.

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As a result of the contract negotiations and Bosa’s holdout, he didn’t return to practice for the Chargers until the end of August. Almost immediately, he injured his hamstring, delaying his debut a few more weeks.

Bosa missed time to learn the scheme and prepare his body for the season, but importantly, he missed time rookies often need to acclimate to NFL speed.

The Chargers are 2-1 with Joey Bosa in the lineup, and the defense looks like it has found its rhythm. And now the Chargers might be wondering if they could have won more games this season if they had signed him earlier and gotten him in playing condition when the season started.

Three games is a small sample size, but if he’s able to maintain anything close to this level of productivity, he won’t just exceed expectations and continue to help the Chargers’ defense trend in the right direction. He’ll be a valid Defensive Rookie of the Year contender.