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Analysis: Chargers still kicking themselves for not making playoffs, but hope lies ahead

Analysis: Chargers still kicking themselves for not making playoffs, but hope lies ahead
Chargers receiver Keenan Allen catches a fumbled ball from teammate Melvin Gordon and runs it into the endzone for a first quarter touchdown on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The season ended in disappointment for the Chargers, victims of a four-team tiebreaker that ignored their 54-24 victory over the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills.

One win would've made the difference, and the Chargers could fixate on the factors that kept them from getting it. They could focus on how they failed to finish off the Jacksonville Jaguars after intercepting two passes in the final two minutes while leading. They could focus on the wide-right kicks that cost them against the Miami Dolphins.

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And there will be time for that in the coming months.

But instead of stewing over what happened in 2017, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, general manager Tom Telesco and the rest of the front office already have begun trying to figure ways to keep those problems from repeating in 2018.

While no final decisions need to be made immediately, here's a look at some of the big questions the Chargers face:

How much of the roster will return?

There's a sense that the Chargers would like to keep as much of the current roster together as possible because of how close they came to reaching the playoffs.

Their biggest name free agent is Antonio Gates. The tight end, who will someday represent the Chargers in the Hall of Fame, almost certainly will have a reduced role if he re-signs with the Chargers. If the money is right, the Chargers would certainly want him back — especially after two strong games to end the season — but if the asking price is too high, they might move on.

If Gates is the most prominent free agent, Tre Boston might be the most coveted by other teams. Boston won the free safety job after being released by the Carolina Panthers and became a mainstay. He's a vocal leader, a playmaker who led the Chargers with five interceptions and an improving tackler. The Chargers had to pay up to re-sign safety Jahleel Addae last offseason, and they'll probably have to open the checkbook again to keep Boston.

Starting guard Kenny Wiggins enters free agency for the first time, coming off a season in which he started all 16 games. Wiggins has said he wants to return, but the Chargers invested a second-round pick in guard Forrest Lamp last year, and Lamp should be sound after sitting out the season because of a knee injury. Safety Adrian Phillips, who was an important performer, also is an unrestricted free agent.

If the Chargers need to create additional salary cap space, veteran defensive tackle Corey Liuget and receiver Travis Benjamin have younger, cheaper players behind them on the depth chart.

What are they going to do about the kicking game?

Addressing the Chargers' kicking situation is a top priority for the offseason, Lynn said, and how could it not be?

The Chargers used four kickers this season, and all had serious shortcomings.

Younghoe Koo was supposed to be a long-term answer, but it seemed as if a blocked potential game-winning kick shattered his confidence. One week later against the Dolphins, Koo missed two important kicks, including a potential game-winner. The Chargers moved on to Nick Novak, whose injury opened the door for Travis Coons, whose weak leg on kickoffs opened the door for Nick Rose.

It's unlikely any of them will kick for the Chargers next season.

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The Chargers could look to free agency to find a kicker, but they've made it clear that they're not in the market for a "Band-Aid." They're looking for a long-term solution.

Could the Chargers end up drafting a kicker? Will they scour the country for kickers who are out of work? Bringing in a rookie, maybe even drafting one, seems the most likely scenario. Auburn's Daniel Carlson and Florida's Eddy Pineiro are two names to remember.

Will they keep their staff in tact?

Maybe one of the biggest moves the Chargers can make this offseason is to find a way to retain defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

Bradley, who will have opportunities elsewhere either as a defensive coordinator or possibly as a head coach, helped shape a young defense into one of the league's best. As the season progressed, the group got better and better as it accclimated to Bradley's system.

His enthusiasm is infectious and nearly impossible to replace.

Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Lynn seemed to get into a better rhythm as the season went along, with the two coaches beginning to better integrate their philosophies into the Chargers offense. Special teams coach George Stewart, who presided over the unit that had so many kicking issues, also oversaw massive improvement on the coverage units.

Where do they need to get better?

Despite all the good things that happened in 2017, the Chargers roster still needs upgrading.

Their run defense would greatly benefit from added depth at linebacker. The secondary should be strong with cornerback Jason Verrett returning from a knee injury to join Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams and Desmond King.

The offensive line will have to replenish depth with Matt Slauson and reserve tackle Michael Schofield headed to free agency.

The Chargers still aren't fully prepared for life after Philip Rivers, and they'll have options in a quarterback-rich draft.

If they can address most of these questions, the Chargers will be in prime position to build on their 2017 season, even though it didn't end as hoped.

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports

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