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Chargers sign Casey Hayward to contract extension; look to be more selective in free agency

The Chargers’ first move of their offseason didn’t have the team shopping the free-agent class. Instead, they looked internally to make a move with the future in mind.

They agreed with Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward on a three-year contract extension, a deal worth $36 million with $20 million guaranteed, according to a person familiar with the contract.

Hayward intercepted 11 passes in the last two seasons while becoming one of the top coverage players in the NFL.

Extending Hayward could be a signal of a relatively quiet foray into free agency, with the team spending more energy and money on retaining a roster that finished last season by winning nine of 12 games.

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A year ago, it was a different situation.

New coach Anthony Lynn repeatedly talked about the need to upgrade the offensive line, and less than 48 hours into the official start of free agency, left tackle Russell Okung was signed to a big contract.

The move, it turned out, was a key part of the team’s resurgence.

Okung sat out only one game and earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl, anchoring a line that gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2017 and developing into one of the leaders in the locker room.

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The team also re-signed defensive end Melvin Ingram and strong safety Jahleel Addae to big contracts to round out their big-ticket free-agency moves.

Heading into free agency in 2018, the Chargers’ needs aren’t as clearly defined. While management has said that any momentum built in the final three quarters of the season stopped when the team missed out on the postseason by a blink, the organization has to feel pretty good about the roster already in place.

That’s not to say the Chargers can’t use help and that it won’t come via free agency. But the team is in a position to be pickier and more frugal while trying to address some key needs.

Kicker

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Younghoe Koo, Nick Novak, Travis Coons and Nick Rose took turns at missing kicks a season ago, and it cost the Chargers a trip to the playoffs.

Some of the top potential acquisitions have agreed to deals to stay with their teams, diluting a shallow pool even further.

Former Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski could be an option, though a 40-year-old coming off a back injury isn’t the most appealing option. Philadelphia kicker Caleb Sturgis, injured in the season opener last year, also could be on the team’s radar. Jake Elliott helped kick Philadelphia to a Super Bowl title.

The Chargers, though, seem as if they’re out on pursuing the top-tier free agents for now. Lynn said he’d prefer to sign a younger kicker who can grow with the team and organization.

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The team already signed former top pick Roberto Aguayo and could bring back Novak, but drafting a kicker still seems like the plan.

Linebacker

The Chargers defense became the backbone of the team, combining a deadly pass rush with turnover-happy defensive backs. They were usually the best unit on the field in every game and did it with a patchwork group of linebackers.

A preseason injury to Denzel Perryman forced the Chargers to dig deep to find players capable of taking snaps, and even after Perryman returned the answer on defense usually involved using more defensive backs and less backers, even in running situations.

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The Chargers would like to rectify that this offseason, and this is the one position where they could spend money. A young three-down linebacker such as Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens wouldn’t come cheaply, and he’s rumored to be headed to the Indianapolis Colts.

Philadelphia linebacker Nigel Bradham played a key role during the Eagles’ championship season and was with Buffalo when Lynn was the Bills’ assistant head coach, but he’ll be at the top of a lot of teams’ lists.

Paul Posluszny, who played for Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, doesn’t have the speed to be on the field in passing situations, but could be a veteran option to help shore up the team’s run deficiencies.

Free safety

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Last year, the Chargers had to deal with possibly losing Ingram, one of their best pass rushers, and Addae. This season, the only starter up in free agency is safety Tre Boston, who was a bargain after the Chargers swooped him up late in the offseason.

Boston played nearly every snap last season and had five interceptions.

Boston is one of the big names available on the safety market, and could very easily end up out of the Chargers’ price range. The team has had some success bargain hunting at this position and could look to address it that way again after the first wave of free agency washes through.

Keeping Boston is the best option, but if the price isn’t right, the team could turn in another direction.

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One interesting name to watch is San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, one of the pioneers in NFL player protests. It’s unknown whether his activism will affect his free-agency market.

Tight end

The Chargers’ big question at tight end will be deciding whether the money and sentimental value align to allow for Antonio Gates to return and finish his career with the organization.

Gates proved he’s still a productive player, filling in for Hunter Henry in the final two weeks of the season. But, at this point, he’s clearly just a complementary piece.

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Keeping Gates in a Chargers uniform is important for legacy, but the team is more interested in making decisions with brains instead of hearts.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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