He led the Chargers in tackles a year ago, Kenneth Murray Jr.’s total of 107 the second-most among NFL rookies.
Murray was the only Chargers defender to start all 16 games in 2020, manning the middle from his linebacker position.
On Sunday at Houston, his evolution in Brandon Staley’s scheme will take another step when Murray is expected to start on the edge in place of Pro Bowl pass rusher Joey Bosa.
“He definitely has all of the physical attributes to be on the edge,” said Uchenna Nwosu, who will start on the side opposite Murray. “I’m excited to see Kenneth play. He’s putting in the work.”
Staley said the plan is to start Murray against the Texans with Bosa on the COVID-19 reserve list. Bosa tested positive this week and was immediately ruled out for the game Sunday.
The Chargers lost another starting defender — tackle Justin Jones — on Friday when he became the 12th player on the active roster to be placed on the virus list.
The others include running back Austin Ekeler, center Corey Linsley, cornerback Tevaughn Campbell, wide receiver Jalen Guyton, quarterback Chase Daniel, kick returner Andre Roberts, defensive lineman Joe Gaziano, edge rusher Chris Rumph II and defensive backs Kemon Hall and Trey Marshall.
Other than Bosa and Hall, Staley reiterated Friday that the others still could pass the necessary tests in order to play at Houston. The weekly deadline for making roster moves arrives at 1 p.m. PST Saturday.
The Texans, having put more than 20 players on the COVID list, also are dealing with significant absences. The game remains as scheduled.
The Chargers drafted Murray in the first round — No. 23 overall — in April 2020. General manager Tom Telesco traded two draft picks to move up in order to select Murray.
The rookie out of Oklahoma was immediately plugged into then-defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s system and instructed to use his abundant athletic talents to make tackles.
Murray remained inside in Staley’s defense to open this season, starting the first three games at linebacker.
But an ankle injury sidelined him for five games, a stretch during which Kyzir White and Drue Tranquill began to form a productive partnership at the Chargers’ two inside linebacker spots.
While recovering from injury, Murray began to train at edge rusher, too, the Chargers interested in expanding his versatility and exploring ways to best use his skills.
Most of his limited action over the last few games — Murray’s ankle issues have lingered — has come on the edge, with mixed results.
With Bosa and veteran backup Kyler Fackrell (knee) out, Murray could receive plenty of opportunities this weekend.
“He’s just getting a little bit more confident,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said. “He’s an athletic guy and a talented guy. Now, I think he’s starting to apply some of those things to where he can take advantage of it.”
After Murray and Nwosu, the Chargers have Emeke Egbule, who has spent most of this season on the practice squad, as an option on the edge.
Staley said defensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Andrew Brown, who remains on the practice squad, also could play outside against the Texans.
“My role stays the same,” Nwosu said. “It’s about getting guys more prepared. … We’re short-handed, but those guys prepare hard and work hard. They’re ready.”
The Chargers could be without Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr. on Sunday as he continues to manage his hamstring injury. James officially was listed as questionable.
“Whether or not he plays will be decided between now and then,” Staley said. “We do want him to be available because he is better this week. But we will never put him out there at the expense of losing him long-term.”
The Chargers’ secondary will receive a boost against Houston with the returns of starting cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. and backup safety Alohi Gilman.
Samuel has missed the last four games because of a concussion and Gilman the last five because of a quadriceps problem.