NFL free agency: Chargers need to put money where their defense is

Chargers coach Brandon Staley adjust his headset on the sidelines.
Chargers coach Brandon Staley had some headaches with his defense last season.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

In January, coach Brandon Staley talked about the Chargers’ 2021 defensive problems by noting the attrition the team experienced “up front at the point of attack and in the secondary.”

Then, at the NFL scouting combine this month, Staley made a point to mention two areas that need to be addressed this offseason: defensive line and secondary.

So, in that rather clear context, welcome to 2022 free agency, where the Chargers will take their next significant strides in reshaping a roster that Staley says needs to be “complete” and “deep” for the team to improve.

Negotiations with available players league-wide can begin at 9 a.m. PT Monday. Signings can be become official after 1 p.m. Wednesday.


The Chargers’ first major step toward defensive improvement came Thursday when they agreed to trade for edge rusher Khalil Mack, sending Chicago a second-round pick in 2022 and a sixth-rounder in 2023.

The Chargers have agreed to acquire Khalil Mack in a trade with the Chicago Bears. The linebacker reunites with coach Brandon Staley, who had been an assistant in Chicago.

There will be more moves to come. The Chargers’ other concerns entering free agency include the right side of their offensive line, running back, tight end, wide receiver and linebacker.

Yes, linebacker — the remaining level of the defense — meaning that side of the line of scrimmage could see notable renovation before Staley’s second training camp with the team opens this summer.

Among the decisions facing general manager Tom Telesco and his staff are what to do with three young internal defensive free agents: edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu, tackle Justin Jones and linebacker Kyzir White.

The acquisition of Mack suggests Nwosu won’t be re-signed. On Friday, a message Nwosu shared on Twitter — “Business is business” — seemed to confirm that his time with the Chargers is ending.

Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack takes a defensive stance.
The Chargers’ acquisition of linebacker Khalil Mack (52) probably means free agent Uchenna Nwosu won’t be back with the team.
(Kamil Krzaczynski / Associated Press)

Last season, Jones sat out six games — five because of a calf injury and one while on the COVID-19 reserve list — and his absence was obvious, particularly against the run.

White emerged in his fourth year, starting all 17 games and leading the Chargers with 144 tackles, third best in the AFC. He also had two interceptions and provided the defense with an edginess.

As for external free agents, the Chargers have the cap space to be aggressive shoppers, even after Telesco earlier this offseason described his history of free-agent spending as being “more selective.”

The deal for Mack hinted at an offseason that could be quite active for this team, Staley’s influence over personnel decisions on full display given his time together with Mack during the 2018 season.

Many thought Aaron Rodgers might head to Denver, but he agrees to stay with the Packers, and Broncos trade for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

The Chargers are among the teams that have been linked to J.C. Jackson, widely recognized as the top cornerback on the market. Pro Football Focus projects the former Patriot’s next deal to be worth $18 million annually.

Another option the Chargers probably will consider is Darious Williams, a starter for the Rams the last two seasons, including 2020, when Staley was his defensive coordinator. Williams is PFF’s fifth-ranked free-agent cornerback.

A similar connection can be made to defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, who has started 38 games for the Rams since 2019. The list of prominent tackles available also includes former Chicago Bear Akiem Hicks and former Cincinnati Bengal B.J. Hill.

The Chargers finished 30th against the run last season, allowing 138.9 yards per game. Opponents also converted a league-high 49.5% of third downs.

Wide receiver Mike Williams credits the Chargers’ coaching staff for increasing his role and and his reward is a new contract with the team.

“It needs to be much better moving forward,” Staley said. “I know it will be. That’s going to take place in time.”

The Chargers lost both starters on the right side of their offensive line — tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Oday Aboushi — to season-ending injuries in 2021. Bulaga, who has a year left on his contract, is expected to be cut and Aboushi is a pending free agent.

There are plenty of options in free agency, including guards Laken Tomlinson, Connor Williams and Austin Corbett, and tackles Morgan Moses, Trent Brown and Riley Reiff, all of whom rank among the best available by PFF.

Running back and tight end are both positions where the Chargers could use more depth.

Austin Ekeler produced 20 touchdowns coming out of the backfield last season but needs help. Veteran tight end Jared Cook, brought in via free agency a year ago, is not expected to return.

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The Chargers also could be looking for another wide receiver, even with Mike Williams signing a three-year extension Tuesday. With a quarterback such as Justin Herbert, too many potential targets isn’t possible.

Whatever the Chargers are going to look like in the 2022 season, the image will continue to take shape very soon.

Despite all the big names being tossed around, Staley said the idea wasn’t just to accumulate the greatest amount of talent.

“Talent … that word is something that doesn’t sit well with me because that’s not what building a team is about,” he said. “There’s a difference between being a talented team and a championship team. The goal is to become a complete team. That’s where we’re headed as an organization.”