I know it's still early in the morning, but are you ready for math? Let's math.
According to Pro Football Talk, the San Diego Chargers are $14.9 million under the salary cap (or what people assume the cap will be) as of yesterday. There are only 13 teams with more cap space than them currently, making their salary cap status seem incredibly average.
However, I did a little studying of the NFL salary cap this weekend. Here's how it pertains to the Chargers:
- Marcus McNeill needs to be given a clean bill of health by the team doctors tomorrow, otherwise his 2012 salary is not guaranteed (meaning they can, and will, release him without paying a cent of his salary).
- Marcus was given a signing bonus of only $1.791 million in 2010. Unless released, signing bonuses are spread evenly throughout the length of the contract as far as affecting the salary cap. So even though Marcus was given all of that money a year and a half ago, only $298,500 of it went against the team's 2011 cap number (and the same amount went against the "cap" 2010, when there wasn't one).
- When he's released, the rest of his signing bonus will go against the cap in the year that he's released. This means that, this offseason, it will take up $1,492,500 of the Chargers cap (which is money they've already paid him) to release the former Pro Bowl Left Tackle.
- Marcus' salary for 2012 is $10.5 million.
You just said "Julius Peppers" and I want you to shut-up. Peppers was signed in a year without a salary cap. Things were different then. We need to find comparable players to all the possible Chargers' free agent targets to see what their cap hit might be in the first year.
The best comparable player out there might be Jonathan Goodwin, who was a free agent at 32 years old in 2011. He was a solid Center for the Saints, but ended up signing a 3-year deal for $10.9 million with the San Francisco 49ers. He received a $2 million signing bonus and his first-year salary (also $2 million) was guaranteed. With the signing bonus spread over the 3 years, this means that Goodwin's first year cap hit was $2.666 million.
Projected 2012 Cap Hit: $2.7 million
Gaither is a really odd story. He's played 4 years in the league, and so he's still very young, but has only been a starter for 2.5 of those seasons. The Ravens seemingly released him due to laziness, and the Chiefs couldn't find a place for him either. He probably would've spent years riding benches if it weren't for a rash of injuries taking out the Chargers' o-line. There's not a lot of great comparables out there for him.
Perhaps the best comparable player to 2012 Jared Gaither in 2011 Jared Gaither. He was still thought of as a fairly solid OT coming from the Ravens, yet signed a one-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs for $685,000. The Chargers usually sign players to two-year deals unless it's someone they knew they can count on (see Rivers, Philip and Gates, Antonio). I'm going to do some guesswork here and say that Gaither gets a two-year deal in San Diego for $3 million, with a $1 million signing bonus.
Projected 2012 Cap Hit: $1.5 million
Wonko already did most of the leg work on this for me. His final conclusion was that Hester was most similar to Leonard Weaver, who is also a free agent this year, and could expect somewhere around $11 million for 3 years to be thrown at him. That's also what Vonta Leach got from the Ravens last season as a free agent from the Texans. Leach's deal was back-loaded, with him getting a $1 million salary in 2011 along with a $4 million signing bonus (for a first-year cap hit of $2.3 million). Let's go with that as our best comparable for now.
Projected 2012 Cap Hit: $2.3 million
So, what's left? $24.2 million, minus Hardwick ($2.7 mil), Gaither ($1.5 mil) and Hester ($2.3 mil)... and we're left with $17.7 million. Let's go shopping.
No, we're not looking at Julius Peppers. That contract included TWO signing bonuses! One for each of the first two years. That's what happens when you play football without a salary cap.
Jason Babin was the top pass-rushing free agent last year. He got a five-year, $27.75 million contract from the Eagles. That's not even worth exploring further. Williams will be lightyears ahead of that because he's better, younger and more proven.
I like Dwight Freeney. He was about the same age as Williams when he signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Colts in 2007. The contract was heavily back-loaded, with his base salary being below $1 million for the first two years of it, but included a $15 million signing bonus. His first-year cap hit was $3.25 million.
Elvis Dumervil was a little younger, but slightly less dominating, than Williams is now when he signed his six-year $61.5 million contract in 2010. His first-year cap hit was $3.668 million.
Wait, I think I found the best comparison. Tamba Hali signed a five-year, $57 million contract last year with the Chiefs. The first year cap hit was $9 million.
Projected 2012 Cap Hit: Between $3.25 - $9 million
I will admit that the Gaither thing changes everything. For that money, he'd be incredibly cheap for a starting Left Tackle. However, it's hard for me to believe that five games has changed any team's mind about investing in him for big money or long-term. Even if he's signed to a longer contract, expect it to be back-loaded and not include a big signing bonus (similar to McNeill's contract). So it wouldn't be a big cap hit anyway.
The answer to your question, if the Chargers could sign Gaither, Hardwick, Hester and still have room to go after Williams (and a backup RB and Antonio Garay) is apparently yes. If there's room after that to make a play for Vincent Jackson is debatable, but probably unlikely consider that with the increased cap room made by McNeill's release there will still be teams with more cap room and more of a need at WR than the Chargers.