Chargers bolster roster during free agency
General Manager Tom Telesco continued to bolster his defense over the weekend by signing former Packers cornerback Casey Howard off the free agent market.
With questions surrounding the health of Brandon Flowers and Patrick Robinson testing his value in free agency, Telesco inked the versatile corner to a reported three-year, $15.3 million contract — $6.8 million guaranteed (Ian Rapoport/ NFL Network)
Where the 26-year-old Hayward fits into defensive coordinator John Pagano’s defense will likely be decided in training camp. Although he has experience on the outside as a corner as well at the nickel position, one would assume Pagano moves Flowers inside and pegs Hayward the starter opposite Jason Verrett — giving the Chargers one of the best young cornerback duos in the NFL.
A second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2012, the 5-foot-11-inch, 195-pound Hayward was part of a Packers secondary that finished the season ranked sixth in pass defense last season. Ranked 14th-overall on Pro Football Focus’ top 75 free agent list for 2016, Hayward becomes the third veteran free agent to join the Chargers defense — Telesco signed defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (Seahawks) and free safety Dwight Lowery (Colts) on the first day of free agency.
Aside from the 31-year-old Mebane, it appears the Chargers are going for a youth movement in hopes to turn around a dismal performance in 2015 as the team finished last in the AFC West with a 4-12 record.
It was no secret the team wasn’t bringing back All-Pro safety Eric Weddle and veteran receiver Malcom Floyd was retiring, however, Telesco released inside linebackers Donald Butler and Kavell Conner along with veteran running back Donald Brown earlier this month. Also gone from the roster is defensive end Kendall Reyes, who signed a free agent contract with the Washington Redskins.
On offense, Telesco made quarterback Philip Rivers a very happy camper by re-signing right tackle Joe Barksdale and adding the speedy Travis Benjamin to the receiving corps.
Coming off a season where he was voted Chargers’ Lineman-of-the-Year, Barksdale was rewarded with a four-year, $22 million contract. Being the only offensive lineman not to miss a game last season for the bolts, it was vital Telesco kept Barksdale in-house not only for continuity purposes up front, but his ability to step in and play left tackle if need be.
The signing of Benjamin not only brings over-the-top speed to the position, but his talent as a punt returner gives the Chargers a much-needed threat on special teams the team has been lacking since they let Darren Sproles walk out the door following the 2010 season.
Entering his fifth year out of the University of Miami, the 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Benjamin has averaged 12.6 yards per punt return over his career and has three returns for touchdowns. And despite the quarterback woes in Cleveland, the former Hurricane was on the radar of a few teams following a 2015 breakout season which saw him catch 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns.
The Endzone: In his four years with the Packers, Hayward has totaled 168 tackles, 35 passes defended, nine interceptions and one touchdown. He has led the team in interceptions in two of his four seasons with the Packers and in 2012, Hayward led all NFL rookies with six interceptions and 11 passes defended. In 2014 he was tied for seventh in the NFL with five total takeaways (three interceptions and two fumble recoveries), and started a career-high 11 games last season with 65 tackles and seven passes defended.
Aside from the aforementioned free agent signings, Telesco also re-signed tight end Antonio Gates, quarterback Kellen Clemons, safety Jahleel Addae, receiver Dontrelle Inman, guard-tackle Kenny Wiggins and defensive tackle Damion Square.
Entering the free agent period Telesco had a reportedly $30 million to play with, which begs the question — how much money is he willing to pay for a veteran center because both Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson are not the answer. There are two centers still on the market who are both ranked amongst PFF’s top 75 — #33 Stefen Wisniewski and #45 Manuel Ramirez. Both are intriguing in their own rights — Wisniewski is familiar with the AFC West having played his first four seasons in the NFL with the Raiders, and Ramirez because he’s versatile enough to play both center and guard.
Here is a quote from PFF on both players: “Wisniewski had the third-highest pass-blocking efficiency among centers in 2015, as he allowed just 13 total pressures during his first season with Jacksonville. He’s a young, durable player who has missed 19 snaps over five seasons in the league. Ramirez has been solid over his career and could still be a viable short-term option at age 33. He has the versatility to play either center or guard, which also helps his stock.”