The Chargers front office faces an overwhelming task for the second consecutive off-season. No, it isn't finding common ground on a stadium deal or even getting a stadium initiative through a vote, it's the seemingly Herculean task (for them) of making informed and intelligent roster decisions aimed at building a winning football roster. Of course, their ability to make those informed and intelligent decisions is even more critical given the impact a successful 2016 season could have on a November stadium vote. No pressure, guys.
With more than 20 of his own players set to become free agents, a number of bad contracts weighing down the roster and a handful of players to at least consider extending, the Chargers fourth year GM has a number of difficult decisions to make before he can even think about signing free agents. That's why I thought it best to tell Tom how to best prepare himself for a productive free agency period with a focus on freeing up the cash he needs to upgrade this roster.
For the purposes of this post, we will break down the pre-free agency off-season plan into three categories: internal free agents to re-sign, salary cap cuts, and contract extensions. So, without further ado, let's take a look at my off-season plan.
Internal Free Agents
As mentioned above, more than 20 "current" Chargers are set to become free agents this offseason and they are:
Joe Barksdale, Kellen Clemens, Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle, Ladarius Green, Chris Hairston, Kenny Wiggins, David Johnson, John Phillips,Jeff Linkenbach, Ricardo Mathews, Joe Mays, Kendall Reyes, Johnnie Troutman, Cassius Vaughn, Jaleel Addae, JD Walton, Matt Daniels, Brandian Ross, Damion Square, Asante Cleveland, Dontrelle Inman and Codarro Law.
All of these players will obviously not be back, but there are a seven players from this group I would expect to return. Some are obvious, but a few others may not be. Let's take a look at which seven pending free agents need to be brought back in 2016.
Joe Barksdale: This is a no brainer as the right tackle proved himself to be durable (a bonus with this OL), reliable and productive. I would expect the Chargers to do everything in their power to bring him back. Projected contract: 3 years, $15M with $6M guaranteed. I would expect the 2016 base salary ($3M) to be fully guaranteed with $3M in additional pro-rated bonuses spread over all three years.
Antonio Gates: Everyone wants Antonio back and he says he wants to return, but it could take some convincing after a 4-12 season. Either way, any deal Antonio signs will be short-term and likely front-loaded with guarantees. Projected contract: 2 years, $12M with $6M guaranteed. Expect the team to guarantee the entire $6M in year one in the form of Antonio's 2016 base salary in order to reward him for years of service and protect themselves should they need to cut him after 2016.
Ladarius Green: Fans move him, coaches have a hard time trusting him, and no one really knows what to expect from him. It's just a shame this coaching staff hasn't got a clue how to develop young talent. Projected contract: 3 years, $7M with $3M guaranteed. We could see the team try to motivate Green by adding some playing time and roster bonuses into the mix.
Kendall Reyes: Reyes is a rotational player, but someone has to be retained with so many defensive linemen set to become free agents and he's the best of this disappointing bunch. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but facts are facts. Projected contract: 3 years, $8M with $3M guaranteed.
Jahleel Addae: If you know me at all, you know I just puked in my mouth a little after the last two entries. I am not an Addae fan and under better circumstances I would go without a second of hesitation, but the Chargers have zero depth at safety and can't go into the off-season with a completely empty depth chart at safety. Projected contract: 2 years, $1.85M with $250K guaranteed.
Kenny Wiggins: Most would suggest the Chargers keep Chris Hairston, but I disagree. If it were my call I would make an example of Hairston for turning his back during the Rivers/Miller scrum in the first Denver game and reward Wiggins, who proved himself to be durable and versatile as a backup offensive lineman. I'd rather not see Wiggins at tackle ever again, but he's a good guy to have around in a pinch. Projected contract: 2 years, $1.75M with $250K guaranteed.
Dontrelle Inman: The Chargers are at a cross roads with their wide receiver corps and could decide to cut Stevie Johnson this off-season. With that in mind, they sign Inman to a low risk deal and give him a shot to step up. Projected contract: 2 years, $1.65M with $250K guaranteed
Salary Cap Cuts
Donald Butler: If the Chargers cut Butler they will eat the $4.63M bonus they owe him this year while freeing up $4.65M in the form of his base salary. More importantly, they free themselves of the $12M option bonus they would owe him if they were to keep him around. Buh-bye,
Mike Scifres: Eat $600,000 to save $3.5M against the cap? Even my four year old can do that math. Net savings: $2.9M
Stevie Johnson: Johnson was an undeniable disappointment in 2015, missing games, failing to produce and, worst of all, committing a series of dumb penalties. The team eats $2M to save $2.9M in base salary. Net savings: $900,000
Donald Brown: With no pro-rated bonus money remaining on his contract, it would be a total shock if the Chargers didn't cut Brown. Net savings: $3.5M
Trevor Robinson: Robinson was the worst-rated center in the NFL last season and is set to receive a 300% pay raise - that cannot happen. Net savings: $2.25M
Sean Lissemore: Like Brown, Lissemore has no guaranteed money remaining on his contract and has not produced at all. Net savings: $1.75M
Melvin Ingram: At this time last year I said the Chargers should extend Ingram's contract while they could still use his injury history and lack of production as leverage, but they opted to play it safe and wait. He responded by racking up career highs in tackles (65), sacks (10.5) and forced fumbles (3). I think his new deal will somewhat mirror the extension Brandon Graham signed in last off-season. Projected contract: 4 years, $27M with $14M in guarantees including his 2017 and 2018 salaries in addition to roughly $5M signing bonus.
Keenan Allen: This is a tough one to peg. On the one hand, Allen is River's favorite target and appeared to break out prior to his injury in 2015. On the other hand, he is a three year veteran who has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in the NFL. My guess is, his age and chemistry with Rivers land him an extension sooner rather than later. Keenan will want Maclin money, the Chargers will want to pay him something in the neighborhood of Eric Decker money, and they will probably settle somewhere in the middle. Projected contract: 4 years, $42M, with $15M in guarantees including his 2017 salary. The Chargers could also build in some roster bonuses to pad the bonus money.
Manti Te'o: Another tough one to peg. It seems likely Manti will always deal with foot injuries which will cost him time, but when on the field (a common theme with these three extensions) he has shown himself to be budding leader on defense. He also took a giant step forward when the team benched Donald Butler in favor of Denzel Perryman mid-way through 2015. I think the two sides wind up using the contract signed by Mychael Kendricks as a jumping off point. Projected contract: 4 years, $33M with $10M in guaranteed money.
While there is certainly no rush, it would not surprise me in the least if we begin hearing about contract extensions for Jason Verrett and Jerry Attaochu, as well. Both players will be free agents after the 2017 season and appear to be important parts of what looks like a promising young core. It's time for the team to commit to these young players if they have any hopes of getting back on a winning track.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I would attack this offseason. Taking this approach accomplishes a few things. It allows the Chargers to plug a few holes internally, free up some cash for external free agents, and potentially off-set the ill-will created by the inevitable departure of Eric Weddle by locking up a few promising young players to long term deals. More importantly, it also provides some hope that the team can rebound from a dismal 2015 season and set themselves up for a nice four or five year run. The question is, will Tom Telesco follow my lead, or will he butcher another off-season? Only time will tell.