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Chargers free agency update: Savvy drafting has the Bolts eyeing the Super Bowl

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 15:36, 25 March 2022

Thanks to a crop of young stars, the Chargers entered the offseason on the cusp of Super Bowl contention. That one of those stars – third-year superstar QB Justin Herbert – is perhaps the most valuable commodity in the NFL provided an opportunity to aggressively attack this competitive window. The Chargers are set on seizing that opportunity. 

It’s tough to argue that many franchises have had a greater impact on the past dozen years in the NFL than the Seattle Seahawks. Led by the dominant ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary and the thunderous power of ‘Beast Mode’, the Seahawks stormed their way to consecutive Super Bowls (following the 2013 and 2014 seasons) winning the first in one of the most dominant performances by a team in Super Bowl history.

The Seattle Blueprint

As seismic as the efforts of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Marshawn Lynch were, the Seahawks’ run was possible because head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider recognized – after the NFL’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement suppressed rookie contracts – the immense value of a competent (or better) quarterback on a rookie contract. Of course, their brilliance was not in recognizing the value of below-market production at the sport’s most valuable position, but in a) recognizing, in 2012, that they actually had one of those guys in ‘undersized’ third-round pick Russell Wilson, and b) having the guts to elevate Wilson to the starting spot, despite having just signed Matt Flynn from the Packers to a three-year, $20.5 million deal (it’s unfathomable given where we are now, but this was a big money deal at the time).

It’s not as though the Seahawks knew then that Wilson was destined for the Hall of Fame. What they did see, however, was a poised, intelligent, mobile and strong-armed quarterback who was slated to earn under $3 million over his first three NFL seasons. At that price, anything remotely approaching competence is a jackpot that allows a franchise to dedicate massive resources to building a Super Bowl worthy roster. That’s exactly what the Seahawks did, giving rise to the Pacific Northwest’s greatest era of NFL football.

The current situation for the Los Angeles Chargers is similar, if less extreme.

The Competitive Window Opens

In the 2020 NFL Draft, after the Bengals and Dolphins selected Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa with (respectively) the first and fifth overall picks, the QB-needy Chargers, at #6 overall, selected the University of Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Though Herbert was a star in college and a top-ten draft prospect, he was neither a can’t-miss superstar nor a readymade Day One NFL starter. In fact, Herbert started his NFL career not starting, and was only forced into the lineup after an egregious mishap by the Chargers medical staff, in which Tyrod Taylor’s lung was punctured during a pregame injection in Week 2. 

From that day on, Herbert has been not only a competent passer, but an ascendent superstar. Herbert linked up seamlessly with one of the NFL’s top dual-threat running backs in Austin Ekeler and an excellent 1-2 punch at wideout in perennial Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The offense didn’t immediately light up the scoreboard, ranking 18th  in the NFL in points scored (24 per game) in 2020, but there was plenty to suggest that fireworks were coming – namely a top-ten finish in total yards and a top-half finish in net yards per pass. By season’s end, Herbert had turned in one of the great rookie QB seasons in NFL history, completing 66.6% of his passes, for 4,336 yards (7.3 per attempt) and 31 TDs, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and throwing some of the prettiest deep passes in recent memory.

On the heels of that incredible performance, and with Burrow still rehabbing the torn ACL that prematurely ended his rookie season, Herbert entered the 2021 offseason as the single most valuable commodity in the NFL – a nailed-on superstar quarterback, not just on a rookie deal, but early in his rookie deal, with excellent skill talent around him, and a pair of bona fide superstars on defense in Joey Bosa and Derwin James. The time had come to legitimately go for it.

Sure, average annual compensation of just over $6.5 million (Herbert’s rookie deals, including bonuses, is 4 years, $26,5 million) dwarfs the pittance that Wilson earned during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl runs, though growth in the salary cap (from $120 million in 2012, to $208.2 million in 2022) has made it so one of the game’s future leading lights still barely costs ‘passable backup’ money.

Last offseason brought the arrival of head coach Brandon Staley, formerly the defensive coordinator of the Chargers’ SoFi Stadium roommates, the Rams, and superstar-to-be left tackle Rashawn Slater (a Pro Bowler and Second Team All-Pro as a rookie) with the 13th pick in the draft. Whether the front office felt that there was already enough on hand to fashion a deep playoff run or simply didn’t see value in the free agent market, the Chargers were otherwise not very aggressive in loading up around Herbert & Co. 

In the season’s first five weeks, the Chargers won four times, in a manner of ways, from defensive struggles to unhinged shootouts, only losing to the Cowboys, by three points, on a late field goal. Weeks 6 and 8 (on either side of the bye week) brought losses – and subpar performances from Herbert, who had just 418 passing yards, 54% completions, and 3 TDs/3 INTs combined. However, as they came against the Super Bowl contender Ravens and the then-surging Patriots – the latter by just three points – the scuffles were easily dismissed.  

The weeks that followed brought a one-possession win over the Eagles, a one possession loss to the Vikings a thrilling home win over the Steelers – though the Chargers would likely have preferred to not give up 27 fourth quarter points and need a dramatic touchdown to win – and a blowout loss to the Broncos in Denver. It was at this point that the fatal flaws (particularly on defense) were laid bare, and it was evident that the team hadn’t done enough to contend.

All the while, Herbert, despite some missteps, played well – well enough that a Week 13 blowout win in Cincinnati over the eventual AFC champions and a dominant home win over the Giants (with Herbert completing over 74% of his passes and throwing a combined six touchdowns) obscured the team’s clear issues. A justifiable overtime loss (but a loss none the less) to the Chiefs, followed by utter humiliation in Houston at the hands of the Texans should have ended the season once and for all.

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Naturally, given the nature of the NFL in 2021, even this was not enough to bounce these guys from the playoff hunt. That moment didn’t come until the literal end of the regular season, and the Prisoners’ Dilemma Bowl in Vegas. Now, we can debate overtime timeouts that should or shouldn’t have been called, and backroom deals that clearly weren’t (but could have been) made…

Mounting a ‘Charge’ in L.A.

The bottom line, however, is that the 2021 Chargers – intermittently awesome and abject – were less than a minute from reaching the AFC playoffs – a single-elimination environment in which their top-end talent could very well have done what Burrow and the Bengals did. The front office may look back at last offseason as an opportunity missed.

Maybe, maybe not.

What is clear is that the Chargers are not going to waste another moment that could be spent building a potential juggernaut around an awesome quarterback whose second season, which included more than a couple of lackluster outings, still consisted of over 5,000 passing yards and 38 touchdowns.

No sooner had the starter’s pistol sounded on the 2022 NFL offseason than the Chargers – as the newly-crowned Super Bowl champion Rams have done for years now – got to work, constructing not a ‘slow and steady’ aspiring contender (though they’ve still got the 17th and 79th picks in the upcoming NFL Draft), but the genuine article, with designs not on being ‘in the conversation’, but dominating it.

In the case of the Bolts, the name of this particular game had to be defense… and it certainly has been!

In the first ten days of the 2022 offseason, the Chargers:

  • Swiped a quality defensive tackle (Sebastian Joseph-Day) from the defending Super Bowl champions at a bargain price ($15 million over three years)
  • Broke the bank ($82.5 million over five years) to add the premier cornerback on the market, ex-Patriot J.C. Jackson, and create (alongside Derwin James, Asante Samuel Jr. and Kyzir White) probably the top secondary in the AFC
  • Sent slightly more than a second round pick to Chicago (and assumed $63.9 million in salary over the next three years), in exchange for six-time Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro, and former Defensive Player of the Year, pass rusher Khalil Mack (who head coach Brandon Staley worked with in 2018 in Chicago)

Samuel, Jackson, James, Day, Mack, Bosa… that, my friends, is a wrecking crew! To be fair, in the AFC in 2022, you’re going to need one.

Even with the Chiefs seemingly taking a step back, the AFC – and the AFC West in particular –promises to be loaded in 2022. By addressing every level of the defense, the Chargers are in position to square off against even the most loaded opposition.

Meanwhile, for an offense that ranked fourth in total yards, fifth in points per game and ninth in net yards per pass attempt in 2021, the plan of attack focused on maintenance and marginal upgrades:

  • The Chargers did right by both Herbert and one of his favorite targets, signing wide receiver Mike Williams to a three-year, $60 million deal; and 
  • In what should prove an excellent under-the-radar move, got younger and more athletic at tight end, with the two-year, $12 million signing of versatile route runner Gerald Everett (formerly of the Seahawks), who should thrive as a fourth option in the offense

Whether these are the right moves, and whether these move are enough remain to be seen. As with any team that’s not yet shown an ability to get over the top, the Chargers will face questions:

What if Khalil Mack’s days as an All-Pro are behind him? What if J.C. Jackson is merely a ‘good’ corner, and not a top-tier guy? Is there a holdover on the roster other than Joey Bosa who can pressure the quarterback? In a key moment, when they need to, can these guys stop the run? Do they need one more explosive playmaker on offense?

The Time is Now

Mileage will vary on each of these moves, and opinions will surely be split on these questions. However, it’s difficult to look back at the Chargers’ last ten days and find a lot fault in how they’ve gone about their business. One of the best young quarterback in the league (we’ll soon simply be saying ‘one of the best’) has presented an opportunity to construct a powerhouse. To hesitate in trying to do would be a greater sin than trying and coming up short.

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