This offseason, general manager Tom Telesco is charged with ensuring that the team performs better on the field. The first instalment of this “2020 NFL Offseason: An Offseason in Review” series, focusing on coaching changes. It discusses how ownership extended a 1-year extension to head coach Anthony Lynn to avoid lame-duck status. If the team does not make strides this season, it is reasonable to assume that the Chargers could clean the front office and coaching staff entirely. Resultantly, Telesco’s pre-free agency transactions laid the blueprints of how the Chargers expect to compete. This article discusses these foundational pre-free agency transactions that laid the ground work for free agency and the draft.
1. Offseason Cuts
Linebacker Thomas Davis
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis led the team in tackles during his sole season with the Chargers (112 tackles). He did well in cumulative statistics due to being a snaps hog (played double the snaps of any other Chargers linebacker). However, the 15-year veteran had a limited impact on games with just 1 sack, 2 pass deflections and not much else. Cutting him cleared about $5 million in cap space while costing $2 million in dead cap (Spotrac). More importantly, it will leave more snaps for high potential players in Drue Tanquill, Kyzir White and Uchenna Nwosu. He eventually reunited with Ron Rivera with the Washington Redskins.
Defensive Tackle Brandon Mebane
The release of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane cleared an additional $4.25 million in cap space and only cost $2 million in dead cap. The Chargers could have waited to see if the 35-year-old would have retired first, but deadlines create transactions. As such, he was released just prior to free agency. His on-field performance had regressed as a rotational player and this again clears nose tackle snaps for a more impactful free agent to be discussed. Mebane remains a free agent at this writing.
Running Back Austin Ekeler
Austin Ekeler had a breakout 2019 season with over 500 rushing yards, almost 1,000 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. It was expected that the he would receive a second round tender; instead, he hit pay dirt by signing a 4 year, $24.5 million deal with $15 million guaranteed (Spotrac).
In the four games prior to Melvin Gordon returning from his holdout, Ekeler led the offense with almost 500 total yards and six touchdowns. Chargers fans shouldn’t expect that efficiency over 16 games as the sole lead back. Yet, his elite receiving ability will help the Chargers win games in 2020. Furthermore, receiving backs like Ekeler tend to last longer in the NFL than power backs. This means that there is a fairly safe bet that the fan favourite will remain a Charger at least through his age 28 season now. This is a great deal for the former undrafted free agent while being affordable to the team.
In traditional fashion, the Bolts have an out after 2 years. After the 2021 season, the Chargers can clear $6.5 million in cap space with only a dead cap hit of $3 million. This means that the Bolts are not financially strapped as they would have been if Melvin Gordon had gotten the deal he wanted. Overall, there is limited risk to the team in retaining one of the league’s best receiving backs.
3. Franchise Tag
Tight End Hunter Henry
The 2016 second-round pick has been a solid, if unspectacular offensive weapon for the Chargers since his arrival. In his rookie year, he broke out with 8 touchdowns but has totalled 9 since then. He also missed the entire regular season in 2018 due to an early offseason ACL tear. Last season, he missed 4 games, but managed 76 targets in the other 12. Henry has only played in 13 of 34 games in the past two seasons (20% of snaps against the New England Patriots in the 2018-2019 Divisional Round). Resultantly, the Chargers are asking Henry to prove himself with the 1-year, $10.6 million franchise tag.
In a perfect world, Henry regains his 2016 composure and breaks out again. The Chargers would use part of their projected $147 million in 2021 cap space to re-sign him. If not, Henry will then either sign a team-friendly, incentive-laden deal with the Chargers or move on.
Henry refuses to sign the tag and holds out for the season (a-la-Le’Veon Bell). However, this seems unlikely. The more likely scenario is that Henry moves on after 2020 and the Chargers don’t prepare for it. In 2018, with Henry injured, the Chargers tight end group was led by blocker Virgil Green. While the Chargers pressed on to win 12 games in the regular season, the offense and Philip Rivers missed having another threat between the numbers. Even in the event that Henry does change teams, the Chargers should be able to net a mid-compensatory pick.
UPDATE: According to Ian Rapoport, on April 13th, Henry signed his Franchise Tag.
Meanwhile… #Chargers TE Hunter Henry is signing his franchise tag today, source said. Not a surprise, but it locks him in for 2020 and guarantees his roughly $10M salary.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 13, 2020
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Linebacker Denzel Perryman
Telesco saved some more cap space by giving Denzel Perryman $3.55 million in guarantees and incentives in return for a $1 million pay cut (Over the Cap). In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor difference. Perryman is still due for run-stuffing snaps and competing for snaps at the mike linebacker position. However, it continues to show how Telesco was committed to maximizing cap space in 2020 to improve the team’s on-field performance.
5. Exclusive Rights Free Agents
These signings have no worst case scenario, other than having to over-rely on replacement-level snaps. Both of these players have played extensive snaps over their short careers. As a result, they offer experience for a minimal cost with none guaranteed. The Bolts declined to extend an ERFA tender to wide receiver Dylan Cantrell after not being able to stay healthy. Perhaps, Telesco may look to give him a minimum-level deal after the draft.
Defensive End Isaac Rochell
Filling in for Joey Bosa in 2018, Rochell managed five sacks while playing over 50% of snaps. In 2019, with healthier counterparts, his snaps fell under 30%. Considering that late round picks are dart throws at best, his low-cost experience is an asset to the depth on the team. Rochell will continue to provide respectable snaps along the defensive line. Yet, it is doubtful that he is seen as a starter of the future.
Offensive Tackle Trent Scott
The Chargers have been forced to start Trent Scott at both tackle spots for 10 games over the past two seasons. While he has no upside, he offers competition as swing tackle with Sam Tevi. As a former undrafted free agent, and with no real commitment from the Bolts, the ERFA tender made sense. Here’s hoping that the Chargers are never forced to start him again.
6. Restricted Free Agents
Telesco opted not to extend restricted free agent tenders to offensive guard Spencer Drango, tight end Sean Culkin, running back Troymaine Pope and center Dillon DeBoer.
CB Michael Davis
After making 19 starts over the past two seasons, Davis has earned another chance with the Chargers (Spotrac). He’s been average in allowing a 60% completion rate and five touchdowns in those games (Pro Football Focus). His tackling has left something to desire, but he actually had the lowest burn rate among all cornerbacks (PlayerProfiler.com). Fellow cornerbacks Dez King and Casey Hayward—along with newly-minted Charger Chris Harris—are all in line for more snaps than Davis. Thus, this signing has the feeling of shoring up a depth spot and maximizing flexibility in the draft, at least for one year.
As with any one-year tender, the best case scenario is that Davis plays well and earns a team-friendly extension. King’s contract expires after the year and he’s been dangled as trade bait recently. King is also seen as a potential Adrian Phillips replacement. If no draft day trade occurs, it is likely that he plays out the year with the Chargers. Then, he’ll hit the open market after next season when they shore up a contingency plan.
Davis gets injured during the season, making the Chargers unable to recoup any useful cap space. Davis could also regress significantly and get benched—not outside the realm of possibility. If Davis maintains his average play while being supplemented by the elite talents on this defense, the pass defense will remain among the league’s best.
7. We Have a Trade!
Left Tackle Russell Okung for Right Guard Trai Turner
A popular move among the fan base, the Chargers traded a disgruntled Russell Okung for offensive guard Trai Turner. Former offensive line coach Pat Meyer signed with the new Carolina Panthers staff this offseason. Once there, he would #KeepPounding the table for Okung. In making this move, the Chargers downgraded at the premium left tackle position, but acquired a 5-time Pro-Bowler for an extra year. Okung had one year left on his deal and had the highest cap hit of any remaining Charger at $16 million. Meanwhile, Turner will cost $20.5 million in cap space over the next two years with no dead cap. Essentially, the Chargers got younger, cheaper, happier and a better fit with Campen’s vision for the offensive line.
Trading Okung left $2.5 million in dead cap this year while Turner has a grand total of $0 dead cap. Okung wasn’t ruling out retirement prior to the season’s end and reportedly wasn’t thrilled about the Chargers’ new direction. Rumours have it that Turner wants a new contract, along with some security of guarantees. Hopefully, his contract demands are not too cost-prohibitive and Turner continues to play at a Pro Bowl level.
Telesco and new offensive line coach James Campen aren’t able to fill the void at left tackle. This means that there are no additions and Trey Pipkins isn’t able to perform. We know that neither Sam Tevi nor Scott are the answers there. If either receive significant snaps, the Chargers’ offensive line woes will continue. They will yield more pressures and hits, potentially shortening the season of whichever quarterback is playing behind them.
As a follow up to this pre-free agency transaction review, the next instalment will review the free agent period for the 2020 NFL offseason, both the players gained and the players lost.