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ESPN tabs Chargers with pair of top free agents

Both FAs have ties to Chargers new coaching staff.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Free agency is one of the most hectic and exciting times of the NFL offseason.

Heck, it’s that way for any major sports league, but the NFL doesn’t have the incredibly hefty and lengthy contracts handed about by both MLB and the NBA.

Regardless, people watch the seconds tick down to the beginning of the new league year and the open signing period just like its December 31. You, nor I, can only hold our excitement in much longer when it comes to think imagining where current Chargers players will end up and/or which players will become the newest Chargers heading into the 2021 season.

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler recently wrote about the top-50 free agents in the NFL, discussing the best fit for each player and where he eventually sees them signing prior to next season. In all, Fowler pinned down two free agents that he thinks fit best with the Bolts while saying two current Chargers would fit better elsewhere.

Who are these players? Let’s take a look.

Free agents who fit with the Chargers

OT Alejandro Villanueva, OT

What Fowler had to had to say:

Los Angeles has a major need at left tackle with Sam Tevi hitting free agency. Villanueva would be an upgrade, and though his best fit might be Pittsburgh, the Steelers probably won’t be aggressive spenders. Villanueva is 32 but has only six seasons of tread as a starter, so he’s still fresh, and his 74.6 Pro Football Focus grade is solid. Villanueva’s offensive line coach in Pittsburgh, Shaun Sarrett, landed an assistant O-line job with Los Angeles this offseason.

The obvious connections here are that the Chargers just hired Sarrett as their assistant coach for the position and they’re also likely in the market for a new left tackle via the draft or free agency.

Villanueva wasn’t at his best in 2020 but he’s got a lot less tread on his tires for a player his age after not having earned the starting role with Pittsburgh until he was 27 years old. After a rough start to the 2016 season, his first as a starter, Villanueva was nominated to the Pro Bowl in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, showing the NFL just how fast he was able to grasp the position. Following the end of the 2020 campaign, Villanueva has 90 total starts under his belt. His 2020 overall grade from Pro Football Focus was also a 74.6, a whole 13 points higher than the Bolts’ highest-graded lineman, Bryan Bulaga (61.6).

The Chargers currently sit with the 13-overall pick in this year’s draft, putting them in prime position to land one of the best tackles in the class should they choose to go that much-needed direction. At the end of the day, I do believe that pick will be used on an offensive lineman, especially after the Chargers’ recent history of free agent lineman simply not working out.

OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB

What Fowler had to say:

New coach Brandon Staley worked with Floyd in Chicago and Los Angeles, where Floyd revived his career with 10.5 sacks as a Ram. The Rams are strapped for cash after the Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff swap and could have trouble keeping in-house free agents. The Rams’ $28.4 million deficit is the fifth largest in the NFL — and that’s before the QB trade hits the books, adding about $10 million.

With veteran edge rusher Melvin Ingram likely to not be re-signed this offseason, the Chargers will be in need of pass-rushing depth behind Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu. With Isaac Rochell also a free agent, there’s a chance that the edge group will look a bit different in 2021.

Floyd looks to be an easy connection for the Bolts now that his former defensive coordinator is at the helm for the other team in town. Add in the fact that Floyd had his best season in the NFL under Staley in 2020 and it’s hard not to think the Chargers wouldn’t capitalize on that synergistic relationship between the two.

The only problem here is that an edge rusher coming off a career year is always set to earn himself a pretty penny during their next chance at free agency. The Chargers have a decent amount of cap space ($24,171,246) but edge isn’t even their number one priority. That would be the offensive line. At the same time, there are a number of cap casualties that could very well take place over the next month that would drastically increase the team’s chances at landing impact players such as Floyd.

Staley, Tom Telesco, and the rest of the front office will have to decide which positions they feel they can skimp on this offseason and which ones are of the utmost importance to the team’s immediate success. Can they get by with Bosa, Nwosu, and a rookie or two this season? Maybe, but a position this important is not likely to go untouched this offseason.

Chargers free agents who fit elsewhere

TE Hunter Henry - Colts

What Fowler had to say:

This offense is ready to take off ... once it figures out the quarterback spot. Adding a new dimension at tight end to complement young pieces Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. will set up the new quarterback nicely. Let Jack Doyle handle the dirty work and Henry will get open. Don’t sleep on the Chargers keeping him, too. Losing him would be big for Justin Herbert.

The Colts can keep their filthy hands to themselves.

Henry may come with a heftier price tag than the Chargers would want to pay in 2021, but he’s worth every penny as one of the league’s only complete tight ends. While he’s not of the Travis Kelce/Darren Waller mold as a receiver, he’s a sure-handed pass-catcher that is well above-average as a run blocker. He was also one of the first Chargers to reach out to Justin Herbert following the 2020 NFL draft and it’d be smart of the front office to keep that type of relationship in the building for their franchise quarterback.

My prediction for Henry’s new contract is likely in the $9-$10 million range, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it reach as high as $12 million when all is said and done. I’d also expect Henry to work with the team to a degree to make sure they can re-sign him while also taking care of the rest of the priority in-house free agents, as well.

OLB/DE Melvin Ingram - Raiders

What Fowler had to say:

“Ingram played four seasons for new Raiders coordinator Gus Bradley, racking up 24.5 sacks from 2017 to 2019 before injuries and a mini-holdout derailed his 2020 season. Clelin Ferrell hasn’t proved a consistent pass-rusher yet, so while he works that out in Year 3, give Ingram a big one-year payout to win on third downs.”

As of this moment, I believe it’s all but official that Ingram is headed elsewhere this offseason. The team’s first-round pick in 2012 has been an electric personality his entire career with the Chargers, but a lot of that juice - at least out on the field — seems to be emptied out after he posted zero sacks or tackles-for-loss in the seven games he played in this season.

Some may point to injuries when it comes to that lack of production, which you have to admit is likely a part of it all. After playing in ever game from 2015-2018, Ingram missed three games in 2019 before failing to play in half of 2020’s contests, also his lowest mark since his second season in the NFL (2013) when he was limited to just four games.

Ingram’s numbers have seen a bit of a decline over the past three seasons since posting a career-high in both sacks (10.5) and tackles-for-loss (17) during the 2017 campaign. While the 2018 and 2019 campaigns weren’t “horrendous” by any means, the 10 total tackles in seven games he posted in 2020 just stands in such stark contrast to what we’re all used to seeing from Ingram.

While he got the money he wanted this past season, what he gave the Chargers made it seem like a one-sided deal that no team ever wants to be on the wrong side of. Again, like many other veteran stars this offseason, a new home looks to be in his future for 2021 and the Raiders seem to be the place with former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley now in Las Vegas.