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NFL draft combine: What the Chargers might focus on this offseason

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack walks off the field following a playoff loss to the Jaguars in January.
Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack, walking off the field following a playoff loss to the Jaguars in January, could be a casualty of cost-cutting if the team needs to free up salary-cap space.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The offseason for the Chargers began sooner than they’d hoped and, certainly, sooner than anyone would have expected on the night of Jan. 14.

That Saturday in northern Florida, the Chargers opened a 27-0 second-quarter lead over Jacksonville in a wild-card playoff game before crumbling to a 31-30 loss.

Since then, coach Brandon Staley has shuffled his staff, moves headlined by hiring new offensive and defensive coordinators. The team has not yet announced all of its coaching changes, but the rebuilding will be evident.

And that is just the start of the significant alternations coming before the 2023 season.

Here are five areas to watch for the Chargers as the combine approaches this week in Indianapolis and every NFL team launches full speed into offseason mode:

Cap crunched

Only three teams — Minnesota, New Orleans and Tampa Bay — are in worse financial shape than the Chargers, who are $20.5 million over the salary cap, according to overthecap.com.

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Teams must be cap compliant when the new league year begins March 15, meaning the Chargers have some serious moves pending in terms of cutting players and/or restructuring contracts.

From the outside, the three most obvious potential cap causalities are wide receiver Keenan Allen, left guard Matt Feiler and tight end Gerald Everett.

Cutting edge rusher Khalil Mack would bring cap relief but also further weaken an already thin position group.

New Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore says he loves what he sees in L.A.’s offense, but will bring some Cowboys wrinkles to run a more balanced attack.

Feb. 1, 2023

Allen has been with the team for a decade and trails only Antonio Gates in several of the franchise’s all-time receiving records. His departure would reverberate among the fan base.

Feiler has started 33 of 34 regular-season games since signing in March 2021. The Chargers seem to have a ready replacement at left guard in Jamaree Salyer.

Everett is coming off the best of his six NFL seasons statistically, but he did have some costly lapses.

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Internal free-agency considerations

Nine Chargers who were major contributors in 2022 are set to be unrestricted free agents.

The group includes four full-time starters: right tackle Trey Pipkins III, linebacker Drue Tranquill, cornerback Bryce Callahan and safety Nasir Adderley, who was benched for one game last season.

Defensive lineman Morgan Fox, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and wide receiver/kick returner DeAndre Carter all played significant roles and also soon will be eligible to sign elsewhere.

Punter PK Scott and linebacker Troy Reeder — both key special teams players — round out the top tier of unrestricted free agents for the Chargers.

Pipkins would appear to be the most likely of the group to re-sign after he established himself in 2022 and displayed an undeniable toughness in playing through a knee injury.

Tranquill just led the Chargers in tackles and took over the in-huddle responsibilities of relaying the defensive signals during his breakout season. But linebacker is not a premier position in Staley’s scheme.

External free-agency considerations

Chargers coach Brandon Staley greets edge rusher Joey Bosa (97) before taking on the Jaguars in a playoff game.
Coach Brandon Staley and his staff might be looking to get edge rusher Joey Bosa some help this offseason, particularly if Khalil Mack does not return to the team.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A year ago, the Chargers were among the teams with the most salary-cap space, and Staley and general manager Tom Telesco shopped accordingly.

They traded for the big-ticket Mack and spent freely in restocking the defense with players more in line with Staley’s preferences. That included adding linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson and cornerback J.C. Jackson.

Those moves — along with several others — put the Chargers in their current cap position, leaving them hunting more for bargain deals this offseason.

There remains a need for help on the edge behind Mack and Joey Bosa. The Chargers have used a draft pick on an edge rusher only once — Chris Rumph II in the fourth round in 2021 — over the last three years.

This team also needs reinforcements along the interior defensive line, where stopping the run has become an annual misadventure of inconsistency. Bigger, stronger and tougher looks to be a must.

Other top areas of need: wide receiver, tight end and — Staley will always advocate — defensive backs.

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Draft doings

The Chargers will arrive at the combine still armed with their original seven picks — one in each round — in the upcoming draft. Their first three selections are Nos. 21, 54 and 85.

Most mock drafts have them selecting a wide receiver — the popular predictions: Jalin Hyatt (Tennessee), Zay Flowers (Boston College) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (Ohio State) — in the first round.

For the second consecutive year, speed on the outside is an obvious need, one the Chargers did not address last offseason. The lack of a burner at receiver showed itself throughout 2022.

“I do think that’s a big area of need,” said the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, who also is an analyst on Chargers radio broadcasts. “They need to get faster and more dynamic and more explosive.”

After Jalen Guyton suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, quarterback Justin Herbert’s lone deep threat was Mike Williams, who uses size — not speed — to be a downfield target.

The four-plus games Williams sat out because of an ankle injury highlighted how much the Chargers lack someone who can run past defensive backs.

Showing QB the big bucks

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert drops back to pass.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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For the first time, Herbert is eligible this offseason for a contract extension, one that should challenge the parameters of what NFL quarterbacks can make.

A new deal for Herbert probably would average somewhere around $50 million per season and include the sort of weighty guarantees that are now the norm at the sport’s most important position.

There are five quarterbacks with contracts that fully guarantee them at least $100 million, according to overthecap.com. Of that group, the two youngest are Arizona’s Kyler Murray ($103.3 million) and Buffalo’s Josh Allen ($100 million).

The most important number with NFL contracts is the money that’s fully guaranteed. Even though average annual values and total guarantees also are touted, the fully guaranteed figure is what teams have 100% committed to paying a player.

Herbert, who turns 25 in two weeks, opened his career with three seasons that collectively rank among the best in league history. He has shown he is a franchise cornerstone.

The X-factor: Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, who was drafted five spots ahead of Herbert in 2020, also is eligible for his first extension. The Bengals have expressed a desire to extend his contract in the coming months.

Waiting to see what Burrow receives might be Herbert’s more prudent financial approach.

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