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Chargers GM Tom Telesco won’t be drafted into free-agency talk at NFL combine

 Chargers general manager Tom Telesco speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis.
General manager Tom Telesco was tight-lipped about the Chargers’ future during a new conference at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)
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The Chargers have a very public decision to make regarding wide receiver Mike Williams.

For now, general manager Tom Telesco is keeping his thoughts on the subject very private.

Telesco used a variation of, “I just won’t have a comment on contract plans right now,” repeatedly Tuesday when asked about Williams and others at the NFL scouting combine.

Drafted seventh overall in 2017, Williams is a pending free agent coming off his finest season. He set career highs for catches (76) and yards receiving (1,146) and had nine touchdown grabs.

The Chargers could put a franchise tag on him at a cost of about $19 million for 2022 or sign him to an extension that would lower his immediate salary cap hit but also include a greater financial commitment.

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Chargers head to combine with no clear choice, unlike the last two seasons. But defense is likely a priority for a team that barely missed the playoffs.

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Asked specifically whether he would prefer to go the latter route with Williams, Telesco said, “Sure, the preference would be that.”

Williams’ annual market value is forecast to be $16.7 million by Spotrac, which projects his extension costing slightly less than $67 million over four years.

The Chargers have the third-most cap space in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com, giving them the flexibility to work out something with Williams.

They also are expected to release Bryan Bulaga, a move that would net a cap savings of $10.75 million. The veteran right tackle, who is due a $2.5-million roster bonus in mid-March, has been limited to 11 games over the last two seasons because of injury.

Chargers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga dries off during a news conference during camp.
Injuries have kept offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga from contributing much to the Chargers the last two seasons.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

But, after Williams, the Chargers have several other internal free agents to consider and an obvious need to upgrade their defense. Williams is one of nine pending unrestricted free agents who started at least five games last season.

“You just can’t bring everybody back all the time,” Telesco said. “Our rosters change over almost 30% per year. You’re not going to be able to bring back 22 starters on both sides of the ball. Continuity is nice, but it can’t be the No. 1 aspect of putting both sides of the ball together.”

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Despite the defensive issues the Chargers had throughout 2021, Telesco again emphasized the importance of further protecting Justin Herbert and providing the young quarterback with more playmakers.

The Chargers have uncertainty on the right side of their offensive line, and — even if Williams is retained — some draft prognosticators have them selecting a wide receiver with the No. 17 pick in April.

Former USC and Chargers center Max Tuerk was suffering from CTE at the time of his death. His parents are trying to make sense of what happened to him.

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“The focus can’t be on just one side of the ball,” Telesco said. “It has to be on both. I want to make sure on offense we don’t take a step back next year. I thought we had a really good year on offense. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was good.”

Another offensive area that needs improvement is running back, where the Chargers were unable to find consistent production behind Austin Ekeler.

Justin Jackson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, has been oft-injured and is another unrestricted free agent. Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III both need development.

“If we want our offense to evolve and get better, we have to get better at that spot,” Telesco said. “Wherever that comes from, that remains to be seen. We need to get more from that spot.”

The Chargers had a difficult time stopping the run in coach Brandon Staley’s first season, a reality that has many analysts projecting a defense-heavy draft for them next month.

Among the Chargers’ front seven, Uchenna Nwosu, Kyzir White, Justin Jones and Linval Joseph are all free agents. So is veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr.

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Along with bringing in some new pieces, Telesco said he anticipates the defense getting better with more experience under Staley.

“I think we’ll take some big strides in the second year with Brandon,” he said. “I’m really confident in this staff, confident in this scheme and the system we’re running, confident in the players we have.”

The Chargers’ roster uncertainty extends even to special teams, where kicker Dustin Hopkins, returner Andre Roberts, long snapper Matt Overton and gunner Ryan Smith are all about to become free agents. Punter Ty Long is a restricted free agent.

They also have a new special teams coordinator in Ryan Ficken and special teams assistant in Chris Gould. Telesco said he will rely on both coaches for input regarding the roster, noting that he already has been impressed by Ficken.

“He’s going to be a big part of us, whether it’s continuity with what we have to what he sees on the outside,” Telesco said. “I’m looking forward to working with him. … I think he’s a good evaluator.”

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