Last month's announcement of an increased salary cap for the 2014 season has a number of teams breathing a sigh of relief, including the cap-strapped San Diego Chargers.
As Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk first reported, the updated figure will reach $133 million—$10 million more than last year.
The raised cap comes as comforting news for the Chargers and second-year GM Tom Telesco, who face an uphill battle during the offseason in creating added space for next season. Kevin Seifert of ESPN laid out a league-wide chart of team cap numbers following news of the projected increase, and the Chargers had one of the lowest totals with an estimated $4.86 million in available cap space.
That number was dramatically altered the last several days after a flurry of transactions that included two new deals and three players released by the team.
Here's where the Chargers stand with the salary cap heading into free agency.
New Deals for Butler and Royal
Priority No. 1 for San Diego heading into the offseason was signing linebacker Donald Butler to a new deal before the start of free agency, and the front office did just that with time to spare. The team announced last Friday that Butler agreed to terms on a deal potentially worth up to $48 million over the next seven years, as reported by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network.
The three-year deal is worth nearly $20 million with $12 million guaranteed, according to Rapoport, and includes a team option after the third year that could average around $8.5 million and $9 million per year with another $15 million guaranteed. The team option after the third year prevents the Chargers from being burned if Butler continues to be injury prone—he's missed seven games over the last two seasons.
All in all, #Charger deal for LB Donald Butler is 7 years, one that can be worth a total of more than $48M with $28M guaranteed.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 3, 2014
To make room for Butler's new contract, the Chargers brass elected to rework Eddie Royal's deal, per Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego. The veteran receiver was scheduled to earn $4.5 million in base salary with a $6 million cap hit next season, but both have been reduced.
According to Gehlken, Royal's salary was lowered to a fully guaranteed total and performance incentives were added. The move comes as a bit of surprise considering the option to release him, but it's a beneficial move that clears space nonetheless.
One particular reason the team may have opted to keep him could be due in part to the uncertain future of Malcom Floyd, who suffered a season-ending neck injury in 2013. Danario Alexander, who will be an unrestricted free agent on March 11th, is also in the dark after undergoing a second procedure on his surgically-repaired knee.
McClain, Cox and Patrick Released
In an attempt to clear more cap space before the start of free agency, the team announced on Tuesday that veteran fullback Le'Ron McClain had been released after two seasons in San Diego. Cornerbacks Derek Cox and Johnny Patrick were also subsequently let go.
#Chargers announce the release of Derek Cox, Le'Ron McClain and Johnny Patrick, saves them $7.45 M in cash, $5.7 M in salary cap space.— Eric Williams (@eric_d_williams) March 4, 2014
McClain's release doesn't come as a surprise considering he played in just 12 percent of the offensive snaps in 2013, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN. Cox's dismissal was also expected following an abysmal first year with the Chargers. Patrick might have fared better had he been healthy, but an ankle injury forced him to injured reserve.
Estimated Cap Room
Given the recent transactions, the estimated cap room for the Chargers is a little more than $7 million. The unofficial figure according to Spotrac.com is $7.47 million, but a confirmed total isn't available yet.
Credit Telesco for maneuvering a tight window, but the increased cap number certainly helps.
Creating Cap Space
While Tuesday's transactions helped free up some cap space, there's more that can be done.
As Gehlken noted following the news of Royal's restructured deal, the Chargers need to make decisions on veterans Jeromey Clary and Jarret Johnson, who carry heavy cap numbers heading into 2014. Clary will count $6.25 million against the cap next season while Johnson adds another $5.5 million.
The option to release both is there, but that would force the team to replace two starters from a year ago. Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego was asked during a recent online chat what direction the Chargers would go in with the two veterans and he bet that both would still be on the roster in 2014.
Reworking a deal is a possibility the team could explore.
Impending Free Agents
Richard Marshall and Chad Rinehart appear to be in the best position of re-signing with San Diego, according to Williams.
Marshall replaced Cox midway through the season and was better than expected. He didn't prevent the Chargers from having one of the worst passing defenses last season, but he brings a veteran quality at the position that the team now lacks following Tuesday's cuts.
Rinehart should be in the conversation as well despite his struggle with injuries. Continuity is key on the offensive line and the Chargers still haven't figured out how to keep the O-line healthy.
Potential Free-Agent Targets
Don't expect a splash in free agency from the Chargers in 2014. The added cap space is a good start for Telesco, but that money will probably go to in-house players or used in minor additions. The Cox deal was a good first lesson for the rookie general manager, but he admitted his mistake by getting rid of the problem entirely instead of waiting for it to get better.
Cornerback is probably the biggest need in free agency. Shareece Wright has the most starting experience on the roster and could use a veteran to partner with even if the Chargers draft a corner in the first round. The more experience you can add to a young group, the better.
Chargers have five cornerbacks under contract in 2014. Shareece Wright has played 1,086 career defensive snaps. Other four: 57.— Michael Gehlken (@UTgehlken) March 4, 2014
Nose tackle is another thin position in need of an experienced player. The list of impending free agents at the position is loaded with experience. Earl Mitchell of the Houston Texans is a favorite of Acee's, as he discussed in Tuesday's chat. The 26-year-old set career highs in tackles (48) and sacks (1.5) last season.