With the 2014 NFL Combine numbers in, and all coming days cluttered with college pro-days, between now and the draft, all eyes are on March 11th. This day begins the new NFL year, but also signifies the start of free-agency, where teams can begin rebuilding for the coming season.
The obvious focus for the San Diego Chargers this off-season was re-signing middle linebacker Donald Butler. With his return to the team now set, this not only solidifies the line-backing core, but also provides consistency and stability for a young defense. This was one of the keys to improving this off-season: keeping a consistent unit on the field for both sides of the ball.
Last year, the Chargers had a great run towards the end of the season, which led to their first appearance in the play-offs since 2009. One big reason why this team had such a successful run was that the defense began to play consistent football, joining the trend the offense toyed with all last season. At times, it seemed as though there were two sides to the Chargers last year, especially the defensive unit, having great games against the Colts and the Broncos, while disappearing against some of the lower ranked teams.
Even though the Chargers came into 2013 with a new regime, many expected them to fall quite short of the results the team ultimately achieved. Now with the pressure of exceeding expectations next year with an even better season, the first move needed to be the one thing the old regime never did...
KEEP PLAYERS THE STAFF HAS DEVELOPED.
Over the last few seasons, the Chargers have fallen from the top of the AFC West because of the improvement of other teams, but also because of all the talent this team has let walk out the door. Now, Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco have made a commitment to consistency on both sides of the ball. With this mind-set, re-signing Donald Butler was a must. His impact on the defense was highlighted throughout the late-season run, with his forcing a turnover and intercepting a deflected pass in the two playoff games.
Even though Butler missed his rookie season with a torn Achilles, and seven games the last two years, he has racked up 199 total tackles, with 5.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions since 2011. He has shown flashes of the talent that led the Chargers to move up to draft him in the third round of the 2010 draft. Butler, a team co-captain and defensive leader, helps solidify the young core of talented players the team has drafted over the past few years. Having this solid core will only help the other players they bring in through free-agency and the draft, to acclimate to the new schemes and language they will have to learn.
"It's just one example, but this is the philosophy of trying to build through your own organization," Telesco said in an interview with the U-T. "You like to keep your core team together for as long as you can."
The one thing Chargers fans did not need this off-season was a reminder of how the old regime used to operate. By re-signing Butler, Telesco not only separates himself from AJ Smith, but also shows that he does want to build this team through the draft and keep the players that the team develops. This sends the message that the Chargers are willing to reward young players for their production.
"We're just excited to have Donald remain with the Chargers," Telesco said. "He's a big part of what we're building on defense. He's still young at 25 years old. His game is still expanding and growing. We're happy to have him back in the mix."
It all starts with the return of Butler.