The San Diego Chargers will be facing some tough decisions in the offseason that could have a huge impact on the team's outlook in 2014.
Having ended a three-year postseason drought under first-year head coach Mike McCoy, expectations have risen for a Chargers team that will be retooling instead of rebuilding in the near future. Given the right moves in the offseason, San Diego could be on a path to be a playoff team for the next few years.
Here are the six toughest decisions the Chargers will need to make in order to set up a winning franchise in 2014.
Danario Alexander is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will be returning from his fifth knee surgery. Having never played more than 10 games in a season during his short four-year career, is it worth San Diego's while to bring back Alexander in 2014?
The 25-year-old receiver caught 37 balls for 658 yards and seven touchdowns in the final nine games of the 2012 season for the Chargers. With loads of potential and an obvious chemistry between he and Philip Rivers on the football field, it wouldn't hurt to give "DX" another shot.
The passing game thrived with Rivers and rookie wideout Keenan Allen, but imagine the possibilities of a healthy Alexander teaming up with the PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Derek Cox's first season with the Chargers was far from ideal. On top of his poor performance, Cox was benched multiple times during 2013 before he was eventually replaced by veteran Richard Marshall.
The 27-year-old cornerback signed a four-year deal last March and was the first major addition in free agency by Tom Telesco. To be clear, Telesco hasn't entirely given up on Cox, and the plan for now is to keep him a Charger, per Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com:
There are no absolutes but sometimes guys need some time. That's why free agency is so hard. You take someone out of one environment and put them into another, not all the time are they going to flourish right away, so we will continue to work with him. This isn't the first time we have ever seen a free agent go from one team to another and have some bumps in the road right off the bat.
However, Williams notes that San Diego could save $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash by releasing Cox in February after the Super Bowl. With Telesco's hands likely to be tied this offseason due to financial limitations, every bit of that money would help.
While Cox struggled immensely, it seems too early to make a hasty decision on a player that clearly had success elsewhere. As Telesco explained, Cox likely needs time adjusting to a new environment.
San Diego's top unrestricted free agent this offseason is, without a doubt, standout linebacker Donald Butler. In addition to finishing near the top of the team in terms of total tackles the past three seasons, Butler has also consistently managed to create turnovers—a trait Tom Telesco would like to see more of from his defense in 2014.
Telesco addressed the topic of re-signing Butler during a press conference held last week, per Ricky Henne of Chargers.com:
We’ll start working on that probably after the Super Bowl. We’ve been in contact with them but I’ve enjoyed watching Donald play this year and I’ve enjoyed watching his growth. He’s a great guy to have around. A good football player. He played some really good football late in the year this year. So hopefully he likes the direction this team’s going in and hopefully he wants to be here, so we’ll see where that goes.
What Butler has brought to the Chargers from a leadership and production standpoint isn't easily replaceable, and the need to re-sign him will be a top priority for the front office. Contract talks were unsuccessful before the start of the 2013 season, but a sense of urgency will likely be in place this time around with the linebacker's rookie deal set to expire in March, as noted by Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego.
Re-signing Butler isn't the tough decision, but how much is the front office willing to spend to keep him a Charger for the next few years? Will there be enough left to re-sign the team's own free agents, let alone pursue the market?
Offensive players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents for the Chargers include: WR Seyi Ajirotutu, WR Danario Alexander, RB Ronnie Brown, WR Lavelle Hawkins, OL Rich Ohrnberger and OL Chad Rinehart.
Beginning with the offensive linemen, Rinehart started 10 games at left guard and was part of an O-line that improved in 2013. Ohrnberger filled in at center when Nick Hardwick dealt with a concussion, and he performed well in a backup role. Depth on the offensive line was hard to come by last season, so do veterans like Rinehart and Ohrnberger immediately top the list of players to bring back?
Brown was also a key contributor in a reserve role. As the health of Ryan Mathews deteriorated down the stretch, Brown's workload increased toward the end of the regular season and into the postseason. With Mathews still prone to injury, is Brown a player you have to keep as an insurance policy?
We already discussed Alexander's situation earlier, but what about the rest of this group? Essentially, you have three big decisions to make in Rinehart, Ohrnberger and Brown. They are all veterans, and each of them is capable of fulfilling the same role given to them last season.
The one knock on Rinehart, however, is his injury-riddled past, which caught up with him again this year. Still, who's next in line should the Chargers decide to let him walk? Does the front office feel confident in drafting a player to come in and start right away? These are tough decisions that will need to be made.
Defensive players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents for the Chargers include: LB Donald Butler, LB Larry English, CB Richard Marshall, SS Darrell Stuckey, DL Cam Thomas and LB Reggie Walker.
Aside from Butler, who we discussed earlier, the Chargers have some tough decisions to make on defense as well. Starting with the secondary, Marshall and Stuckey are probably two of the more important players from this group.
Marshall, who replaced a struggling Derek Cox, finished fourth on the team in tackles this season and recovered three fumbles (one in the regular season, two in the postseason). Even if the Chargers stick with Cox and continue to work with him in the offseason, an eighth-year veteran like Marshall can be plugged in instantly if Cox should struggle again.
The Chargers have been frequently featured in various mock drafts selecting a corner in the first round, which would make sense given the team's horrible pass defense, but having veterans in house will be needed in addition to bringing in youth. Stuckey, the team's top special teams talent, contributed in the secondary as well this season and could continue to be the No. 2 to Marcus Gilchrist.
The next issue on the defense would be deciding if Thomas is the long-term answer at defensive tackle. Sean Lissemore was brought in from Dallas via trade in early September for a 2015 seventh-round pick, and he challenged Thomas with better numbers this season.
Deciding who to keep, if anyone, will be tough, especially for a defense that needs improvement. The Chargers made the right move to keep defensive coordinator John Pagano, but he'll need better pieces on defense to be successful.
In a recent post on ESPN.com, Eric D. Williams alludes to three specific players with contracts that could free up a whopping $11.55 million in cap space—OL Jeromey Clary, WR Eddie Royal and FB Le'Ron McClain. Royal, McClain and Clary have each been in the league for at least six seasons, and all of them were featured starters in 2013.
You can't put a price on veteran leadership in a locker room, but $11.55 million would give the front office some leeway in negotiating with its own free agents in addition to pursuing the market. Tom Telesco has already stated he'd like to keep the core of this team together, and all three of the aforementioned players fit the bill of making up the Chargers veteran core.
It would be a bit of a shock to see Telesco make such a drastic move, but this isn't his first rodeo with veterans. Looking back at his first offseason with the Chargers, Telesco had no trouble letting go of experienced players like Takeo Spikes, Atari Bigby, Randy McMichael and Antonio Garay.