Chargers won free agency with a quiet approach
By Matt Pagels
The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t make many moves in 2018 free agency, but they still came out on top.
When you think of winners in free agency, you think of teams that made big splashes.
Teams with a ton of cap space, including those that played poorly the year prior, usually are the favorites to “win.” The Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Chicago Bears brought in new playmakers in hopes of making a quick turnaround.
There are always exceptions, however. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who ranked towards the bottom in cap space, continued to load up on their rich defensive line. The New England Patriots, a consistent Super Bowl contender, lost their starting tackles but acquired some players via trade, as well as signed several outside free agents. Even the Green Bay Packers, a team that usually lays low in free agency, opened up their checkbooks for two high-profile players.
The Chargers? They stayed relatively quiet, standing by as other teams overpaid for players.
We already knew the Chargers don’t spend big. It’s not general manager Tom Telesco’s motto. He’s the “Coupon God,” as many fans put it, signing underrated players and bounce-back candidates to bargain deals and getting the best out of them. Don’t believe me? He signed the (current) best cornerback in football in Casey Hayward to a three-year, $15.3 million back in 2016. Players like King Dunlap, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Flowers, Patrick Robinson, Matt Slauson and Tre Boston all proved to be very valuable when first brought in on the cheap. And if the Chargers do spend big, the money usually goes towards re-signing/extending their own (Hayward, Dunlap, Flowers, Joseph Barksdale) or towards one outside free agent (Russell Okung in 2017 and Orlando Franklin in 2015). Overall, it shows that star players can come at any price.
So what did the Chargers do so far?
The Chargers signed the 28-year-old Hayward, who was in the final year of his deal, to a three-year, $36 million extension with $20 million guaranteed. His annual salary of $12 million per year will make him the 12th-highest paid cornerback, per Spotrac.com. That was their splash and, again, a steal for a player of his caliber.
The Chargers signed former Dolphins center Mike Pouncey to a two-year, $15 million deal with $10 million guaranteed. Pouncey, 28, requested his release after declining to take a pay cut (he was making roughly $10 million annually). The former first-rounder and three-time Pro Bowler didn’t play to the best of his abilities last year. He was coming off a serious hip injury and sandwiched between two bad guards. However, he’s been an average-to-above-average center in five of his seven seasons, per Pro Football Focus, and he’ll be playing next to two promising youngsters in Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp. It’s a low-risk, high-reward deal for a player who is an immediate upgrade over Spencer Pulley.
The Chargers signed former Broncos tight end Virgil Green to a three-year, $8.6 million deal with $5.9 million guaranteed. Green, 29, is a solid blocking tight end and much-needed depth at the position. As it stands, Hunter Henry and Green are the only tight ends on the roster, as Antonio Gates, Jeff Cumberland, Sean McGrath and Asante Cleveland are unrestricted free agents.
Last but definitely not least, the Chargers signed former Eagles kicker Caleb Sturgis. The 28-year-old veteran kicker missed all but one game last season due to injury and was replaced by rookie Jake Elliott, who performed admirably in Sturgis’ place. Sturgis, who hit 3-of-3 field goals prior to getting hurt, was not re-signed because of that reason. But as the starting kicker for the Eagles the previous two seasons (2015-16), he hit at least 80 percent of his field goals, including a career-high 85.4 percent of field goals in 2016.
Re-signing own free agents is always important but not looked at as being “active” in free agency. And the Chargers did a good job re-signing key role players. Safety Adrian Phillips, linebacker Nick Dzubnar and wide receiver Geremy Davis were brought back on one-year deals. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Michael Schofield, who filled in for an injured Barksdale last season, was re-signed to a two-year, $5 million deal, and wide receiver Tyrell Williams (second-round) and defensive end Chris McCain (right of first refusal) received tenders. Of the Chargers’ remaining free agents, Gates, Boston and Korey Toomer, who remained unsigned, are the ones I’d bring back, but Boston and Toomer are likely moving on.
That said, there are a few areas that need to be addressed. They need help in the middle of the defensive line, especially with a suspended Corey Liuget and an aging Brandon Mebane on the roster; Darius Philon, who split time with Liuget last year, will get his chance to take over one spot for good. They need an upgrade at the linebacker position, too. Denzel Perryman is a stud but hasn’t stayed healthy, and Kyle Emanuel is better suited to be a backup than a starter; Jatavis Brown, who was one of the best rookie linebackers in 2016, will get back on track playing next to Perryman and should be more comfortable in Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme this year. The free safety position is also vacant. On offense, a right tackle and backup running back are needed. Barksdale is average at best, and the Chargers could add some insurance behind Melvin Gordon. 2016 undrafted free agent Austin Ekeler is a fine change-of-pace back, but he doesn’t have the frame or skill set to be an every-down back. Just imagine getting back to the days of a LaDainian Tomlinson-Michael Turner-Darren Sproles combination to take pressure off of Philip Rivers.
Is anybody left in free agency? Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and safety Eric Reid are realistic options. They are young and have solid pedigrees. However, the Chargers will most likely fill their remaining holes with their draft picks, which isn’t a bad thing whatsover.
Anyway… quiet is good for this team. Why’s that? Because this team is already built to compete. The Chargers did what they needed to do for the most part. They have a young, talented roster with very few weaknesses. With another solid draft, I believe they are Super Bowl contenders. I’m not the only one who thinks this team is ready to make a run.