The 2013 season is still technically being played, at least for the four teams in the conference final games, but for the San Diego Chargers (and the other 28 teams sitting and watching the playoffs), the goal of 2014 success starts now.
Even though the Chargers exceeded expectations by finishing 9-7, qualifying for the playoffs, beating the Bengals on the road in the first round of the playoffs and losing to the Broncos by a touchdown, the goal in 2014 should be making the next step.
But what needs to happen for the proverbial “next step” to happen?
Glad you ask. Here are five offseason moves the San Diego Chargers must make to compete in 2014.
Ryan Mathews had a fantastic year. He finished with a career-best 1,255 rushing yards.
When Mathews had big games, the entire team seemed to play better. But, as has been the case every year with Mathews, he battled injuries throughout the year, whether it was a concussion earlier in the year or a high-ankle sprain at the end.
Ronnie Brown had a highlight-reel 58-yard touchdown run in Cincinnati in the first round of the playoffs, but he is a 32-year-old unrestricted free agent.
Whether through the draft (Bishop Sankey, Carlos Hyde or Jeremy Hill in Rounds 2 or 3; Tyler Gaffney, James White or Storm Johnson in the later rounds) or free agency (Jonathan Dwyer, Anthony Dixon and Donald Brown are all unrestricted free agents), San Diego needs to find another running back for the roster.
Safety Darrell Stuckey is an unrestricted free agent, but retaining his services should be a goal for general manager Tom Telesco and the Chargers.
Stuckey was voted Special Teams Player of the Year by his teammates. He was a force on punt coverage and tied for third on the team with 10 special teams tackles.
More than just a gunner on special teams, Stuckey also played well on defense toward the end of the season and in the playoffs.
While Marcus Gilchrist and Jahleel Addae were OK in the lineup and showed great promise for upcoming years, Stuckey proved to be a valuable asset when San Diego switched to dime packages and when players went down with injuries.
The Chargers were in the bottom 10 of the NFL in terms of kick-return averages.
San Diego tried various players (Danny Woodhead, Ronnie Brown, Lavelle Hawkins, Fozzy Whittaker), but none provided any spark in the return game.
Joshua Cribbs is an unrestricted free agent who could add excitement and improved field position to the football team.
Yes, Cribbs is rebounding from a shoulder injury and had such a poor preseason that he was released by the Oakland Raiders before the season started, but he had more kick-return yards in six games for the New York Jets in 2013 than any San Diego returner had in the entire 2013 season.
Even in his shortened year, Cribbs had as many 40-plus kick returns as the entire San Diego Chargers. Cribbs is only one year removed from having 1,635 combined punt- and kick-return yards (and four returns longer than 40 yards) for the Browns.
He could be a bargain in free agency and could give Philip Rivers and the offense five to 10 more yards in field possession per drive.
The former Jacksonville player was touted as the best cornerback available in free agency last year.
Now, he is regarded as the biggest bust for Tom Telesco’s player personnel moves.
Eric Williams from ESPN explains how releasing Cox before the Super Bowl could save the Chargers $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash.
Hopefully Telesco learned his lesson, swallows his pride, admits it was a bad move and cuts Cox loose.
The San Diego Chargers finished the 2013 regular season with 35 team sacks. The Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars each had 31 team sacks, the worst in the NFL, so the Bolts were slightly better than the worst pass-rushing teams in pro football.
Like finding a running back, the Bolts can either draft one (Vic Beasley, Kyle Van Noy, Trent Murphy in the early rounds; Prince Shembo, Devon Kennard, Taylor Hart towards the end of the draft) or look to free agency (Lamarr Houston, Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo).
There are some positives lined up for San Diego’s pass rush.
Melvin Ingram provided a spark during the playoff run when he returned from his knee injury, and he could be a dominating force in 2014 if he stays healthy.
Dwight Freeney was possibly the best defensive player for the Chargers when he was healthy and hopefully returns to form after rehabbing his torn quad.
Thomas Keiser grew as the year progressed and could be a solid contributor for years to come.
But that is a lot of “could” and “hopefully.”
Getting help in the pass rush would help the secondary, which would help the defense, which would help the entire team in 2014.