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Chargers could be getting very defensive during free agency

Chargers could be getting very defensive during free agency
Brandon Mebane and other key Chargers defensive linemen are free agents this offseason. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In their most recent public appearance, the Chargers’ defenders were ripped apart by a New England team bound for another Super Bowl triumph.

The Patriots amassed 347 yards and 35 points in the first half of what turned out to be a 41-28 divisional playoff round victory.

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The process of recovering from that pounding began on the flight back from Foxborough, Mass. General manager Tom Telesco said a few days later, “It will take us a little time to get over this last game.”

The process of trying to assure that a similar performance doesn’t spoil the 2019 season will be accelerated this week with the opening of free agency.

The Chargers already have made two significant defensive decisions, re-signing linebacker Denzel Perryman and releasing safety Jahleel Addae, a move that freed up $5 million more in salary cap space.

They have roughly $26.5 million in cap room as they attempt to retool a defense that at times in 2018 was stellar before collapsing in the end.

A year ago, the Chargers’ most notable additions in free agency included center Mike Pouncey and tight end Virgil Green, both of whom were key contributors on offense.

They also signed kicker Caleb Sturgis, who didn’t work out quite as well, although his struggles did lead to the team finding Michael Badgley.

This time around, defense is the more obvious need as six of the Chargers’ pending unrestricted free agents played roles last season in the front seven.

And that’s not counting Adrian Phillips, a former undrafted free agent who Telesco cut eight times before he emerged as a dependable defensive back, earning All-Pro special teams honors.

“We would definitely miss him, if it doesn’t work out,” coach Anthony Lynn said of Phillips at the NFL combine. “His versatility, his ability to help people around him and understand the defense is huge for us.

“It’s the core players like him that I thought helped us so much. My core guys like A.P., I mean, that’s maybe where we had our edge. Players like that are very important.”

Entering free agency, here are the Chargers’ primary areas of concern:

Defensive line

Tackles Corey Liuget, Brandon Mebane, Damion Square and Darius Philon all played big parts at times last season as the Chargers relied on depth along their defensive front. All four are about to become unrestricted free agents.

Liuget and Mebane both missed extended stretches of time, as did defensive end Joey Bosa, the versatility of a player like Square proving to be vital in filling in the gaps.

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Square is 30 and coming off a season in which he received a base salary of $2 million.

Philon is only 25 and earned only slightly more than $700,000 in base salary. A sixth-round pick of the Chargers in 2015, Philon is in position to be rewarded for proving he belongs. He has missed only two games over the past three seasons.

In February, the Chargers declined to pick up Liuget’s $4-million option, allowing him to become a free agent. Telesco, at the time, left open the possibility of Liuget eventually re-signing.

Given the presence of Bosa and fellow edge rusher Melvin Ingram, the Chargers need strong support within the interior of their defensive front. They finished ninth in yards rushing allowed in 2018.

Still, the Chargers would like to get more athletic at the position. They need linebackers such as Uchenna Nwosu who can excel in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme.

Kyle Emanuel and Hayes Pullard — both of whom have started for the Chargers — will be unrestricted free agents.

Free safety

Addae admirably gave the Chargers all he had in 2018, but as a strong safety he was playing out of position.

How much the franchise appreciated his six seasons was expressed in the fact the Chargers announced the news regarding Addae with a release that included praise from both Telesco and Lynn.

Toward the end of last season, Rayshawn Jenkins began to establish himself as a possible option at free safety. In his second season, Jenkins was given more opportunity and responded well.

The Chargers also have re-signed Jaylen Watkins, who has played cornerback and safety but missed all of 2018 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

The headlining safety on the open market is Earl Thomas, although he figures to be too costly for the Chargers. Landon Collins also is available, but he plays strong safety.

The group also includes Lamarcus Joyner, Adrian Amos, Tyrann Mathieu and Tashaun Gipson.

Offensive line

At least publicly, Chargers management has been supportive of the offensive line’s performance in 2018.

Pouncey and left tackle Russell Okung lead the group, which jelled throughout the year and overcame the loss of right tackle Joe Barksdale, who was released in December.

Still, every NFL team is always looking at add competition and depth along the offensive front, with right tackle and left guard the first spots where the Chargers could be looking to upgrade.

No matter what happens in free agency or the draft, the team already is counting on one key addition to that competition: Forrest Lamp.

A second-round pick in 2017, Lamp missed his rookie season because of a knee injury and then appeared in only two games last season.

He figures to benefit from a full offseason of preparation, something Lamp hasn’t had yet in the NFL because of his knee problem.

“We brought Forrest Lamp here to be a long-time starter,” Lynn said at the combine. “But we’ll see.”

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