In this report on Free Agency we focus on the defense where three starters manning the Chargers secondary are set to hit the open market when the NFL calendar begins March 10. The belief around San Diego sports talk radio is GM Tom Telesco’s main focus will be re-signing cornerback Brandon Flowers and filling other needs on the team before retaining the services of safety Marcus Gilchrist and cornerback Shareece Wright.
With the defense finishing 26th against the run (124 yds. per gm.) and 29th in sacks (7), it is clear the defense needs to improve big-time for any kind of success in 2015. As good as defensive end Corey Liuget has proven to be, the defense needs a legitimate 3-4 tackle to stuff the run and another impact pass rusher to pressure the quarterback.
The linebacker corps, when healthy, has shown the talent to be one of top young units in the league. However, thanks to recurring injuries to the likes of Donald Butler, Melvin Ingram, Manti Te’o and rookie Jerry Attaochu, they have yet to develop into that cohesive unit it takes to be a dominating defense.
Recently, Spotrac listed the Chargers’ top 10 free agents based on their 2014 salary cap hit and among the players listed, six were on offense. Of the six players, only offensive tackle King Dunlap will command a big contract where receiver Eddie Royal and running back Ryan Mathews will likely be signed to team-friendly contracts if they return.
The retirements of Nick Hardwick and Jeromy Clarey gives Telesco some much-needed cap space to negotiate with. Below is a look at the four players on the Chargers’ top 10 free agent list who are on the defensive side of the ball.
Coming in at No. 4 is outside linebacker Dwight Freeney at $4,078,000. Signed as a free agent in 2013, Freeney looked impressive before tearing his quad in just the fourth game of the season against the Dallas Cowboys. Although he took a $1 million pay cut to help the team last March, I believe Telesco goes the youth-movement route rather than bringing back Freeney, who turns 35 later this month.
As mentioned above, re-signing Flowers should be priority No.1. The leadership Flowers brought to the team had a major impact both on and off the field as the secondary jumped from 29th in pass defense in 2013 to fourth in 2014. In addition to his influence on his fellow cornerbacks, Flowers’ play allowed safety Eric Weddle to focus on his own responsibilities which resulted in an All-Pro performance. Look for Flowers to get a nice increase to the $3,000,000 he earned last season, which ranked sixth on the Chargers’ list.
Both Gilchrist ($1,258,000) and Wright ($781,000) ranked eighth and ninth, respectively. Although they had their troubles this past season, both provide solid, if not unspectacular play in defensive coordinator John Pagano’s system. Gilchrist finished second on the team with 76 tackles; tied for fourth with seven tackles for loss; had five passes defensed and forced two fumbles. Wright’s 60 tackles was sixth on the team and he tied Flowers for the team lead with 10 passes defensed.
With reports Freeney is contemplating retirement and Jerret Johnson entering the final year of his contract ($7.5 million cap number), the time is now for the Chargers to make a big splash and sign a couple of high-impact players – remember the additions of linebackers Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey and their influence on the Chargers defense?
The Bleacher Report’s Alessandro Miglio recently listed a number of players from each team who could become cap casualties as teams scramble to get under the 2015 cap. Below are two players (the first of whom is off Miglio’s list) who could come in and instantly improve the Chargers defense – one is from a division rival and the other is from the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks.
The Kansas City Chiefs are $2 million over the cap but that number is expected to increase significantly by signing or franchise tagging star pass rusher Justin Houston who led the NFL with 22 sacks. Rumors have the Chiefs possibly releasing outside linebacker Tamba Hali to save $9 million in cap space. Imagine the Chargers’ defense in 2015 if Telesco can re-sign cornerback Brandon Flowers as well as Hali, his former teammate with the Chiefs. The 31-year-old Hali has posted 52.5 sacks since 2010.
Having already locked-up three quarters of their starting secondary, the Seahawks could very well lose free agent cornerback Byron Maxwell. With speculation the ‘Hawks are going to sign quarterback Russell Wilson to a long-term deal and re-negotiate another contract with running back Marshawn Lynch, Maxwell might be the odd man out. If so, expect the 26-year-old Maxwell to get a major bump up from the $673,363 he earned in 2014.
With the window of opportunity closing as the core group of key players get older, it’s time to restructure a few contracts to allow Telesco to assemble the kind of championship roster former GM A.J. Smith put together early in his tenure. The 2015 NFL salary cap is expected to be around $141 million to $144 million dollars (Altius Directory).