A favorite reoccurring joke my college buddies and I would have is: "This year is going to be different, huh?"
Everyone likely has their own version of our little inside joke. For some, it comes as New Year Resolutions where you promise to create some better habits for yourself. Maybe it's a diet, drinking less, working out more, something of the sort. For a collection of broke college kids it was spending our "summer stacks" on an Office Depot spree, strutting into our dingy apartment with bags full of binders, dividers, agendas, post-its, and various highlighters. This was our non-verbal declaration that we meant business, an academic force to be reckoned with. A roommate would see this display, and of course tease, "Oh yeah bud? This year's going to be different, huh?" Sure enough, as well-intended as the purchases and planning were, we'd all fall into our old habits and the agendas and dividers would be left collecting dust.
For the Chargers, the last offseason is perplexing when taking a retrospective look. It started fresh off a Week 18 win-and-in loss to their division rival, sniffing whafts of the postseason in Brandon Staley's first year as Head Coach, but leaving without the satisfaction of a taste. Fans began into our annual "This year is going to be different!" declarations by crafting their versions of an ideal free-agency, often from idealistic standpoints that didn't take into account Tom Telesco's predictable and conservative history.
But Tom's first off-season move was paradigm shattering; by staking a move unlike any he had made in his 9 years as General Manager, Tom actually gave credence to fans' hope that this year would truly be one to remember.
Rather than give a letter-grade on the varying areas of Telesco's last offseason - I'm going to focus on whether or not Tom shows adaptability or changes in his managerial style, which will hopefully inspire belief that the 2023 off-season can continue the trail blazing that 2022 started.
Tom Trades for a Veteran Superstar
Six days before the start of the new league year, Telesco put the league on notice that he was going ALL-IN by trading for generational pass-rusher Kahlil Mack. Parting with a '22 2nd and a '23 6th was considered steep by some, but for a fanbase conditioned to see Day 2 picks as nothing more than fodder for disappointing trade-ups, forking over a 2nd rounder for a premiere EDGE rusher to compliment Bosa was an absolute boon. Upcoming free agents were put on notice that the "other" team in LA was positioning for a championship or bust offseason, and dominos would fall early in the Tampering Window with an immediate verbal agreement on a five-year deal from PFF's 4th ranked free agent JC Jackson.
This was, undoubtedly, DIFFERENT from Tom Telesco's prior roster building.
Tom Lets Former Late-Round LB Gem Walk, Despite Quieter Market Than Expected
Tom has a very interesting relationship with assigning draft capital to linebackers but not earmarking cap space for them. Three times in his career he has traded up to select a linebacker (Manti Te'o, Jeremiah Attaochu, Kenneth Murray), and other picks he has made that cracked our starting roster include Denzel Perryman, Kyle Emanuel, Jatavis Brown, Uchenna Nwosu, and Kyzir White. Only one of these players was extended beyond his rookie contract, although it was only for two years and largely made possible through Perryman's injury history limiting his value to other teams. Naturally, Perryman was not extended a second time.
In 2022, Kyzir White continued Tom's time-honored tradition. Tom seemingly failed to keep the door open for negotiations once White hit free agency. Although early market projections where lofty and briefly exploded when similarly-profiled Foyesade Oluokun signed at $15 million per year, the drop-off for an undersized linebacker was steep. White ended up signing for a prove-it $3,000,000, one year deal.
Across sports, some of the top managers have nuance to how they handle their outgoing free agents. By keeping communication open, direct, and respectful, some can leave the door open for a player's representation to test the open market and return to the manager with a chance to match the top offer. We've seen Tom struggle with this in the past in a certain headline-grabbing negotiation where both parties seemed at-fault to some degree, but one thing remains fairly clear: Tom doesn't seem to keep the door open once he's cast players off into free agency, unless it's a depth veteran returning on a near-minimum deal like Christian Covington.
A nuanced, savvy GM likely would have kept White in the building for $3 million, and watched him walk the next year when he could have positively impacted the compensatory formula.
When it came to outgoing UFA relationships AND letting developing linebackers walk, it seems Tom didn't change much at all.
Free Agent Spending
Tom entered free agency with a very healthy budget, aiming to rebuild the roster to fit Staley's image and scheme. Without diving into the individual transactions, it's important to note that free agency is not an area where the Chargers fail to spend or be active. Tom's past is littered with high-dollar free agents that are signed to fill immediate areas of need; typically back-loaded deals that encourage the Chargers to cut them before their deal expires. This creates a perpetual cycle of spending more on incoming free agents than their outgoing free agents earn from other teams, preventing us from gaining compensatory picks which is a topic I cover here.
That said, Tom's multi-year deals signed in 2022 look to have been structured to run through their expiration. Of the six multi-year deals signed, each are set to expire while the player is still hovering around their prime at a contract-year cap hit that doesn't scream "cap casualty:"
- Austin Johnson: $9.5mil final cap hit, FA at 30 years old.
- Gerald Everett: $8mil, FA at 30
- SJD: $10mil, FA at 30
- Mike Williams: $27mil, FA at 31
- Josh Harris: $1,455,000, FA at 37 (The exception, it seems we've locked him up until retirement)
- JC Jackson: $19,100,000, FA at 32 (Playing out his contract entirely depends upon his recovery. Note that his deal doesn't have the ballooned contract-year cap hit; all three of JC's final years hover around 19mil)
Tom's Drafting Habits
Tom Telesco's success drafting is something I have covered here when exploring how the Chargers could net better returns from their 2022 draft. The findings were largely what many of us would expect: Tom was exactly average (15th) when measuring how much "value" he achieved per draft pick. However, his results were largely buoyed by early draft positioning from underperforming seasons; when measuring how much value he acquired against his given draft capital, he was ranked 27th.
Tom has failed to execute trades that result in adding draft capital, or trading down and accumulating more picks in rounds that see a greater return relative to the capital spent. Rather, Tom's Draft Philosophy is typically broken down as follows:
- Ruled by FOMO, "Fear of Missing Out." Tom has traded away multiple picks in premium return-on-investment rounds (rounds 3, 4, and 5) to trade-up, often just a couple spots from his current position as if he's afraid of missing on a coveted player or simply doesn't have a Plan B. This has happened with Melvin Gordon, Jeremiah Attaochu, Manti Te'o, and Kenneth Murray, none of which earned a second contract with the Bolts (Murray pending). Teams executing the "trade-up" rarely walk away the winner.
- Round 1: Position of Need, Day 1 Starter
- Round 2: Trade-Up Ammo; Position of Need, Day 1 Starter/Rotational
- Round 3: Elite Trait they hope to develop off of (low floor, high ceiling guys)
- Round 4-5: Collegiate Producers, lower traits but seemingly high floor, small school standouts
- Round 6-7 : Future rotational pieces/Special teams
Overall, Tom's draft was more of the same, but with some great late-round hits.
Post-Draft Free Agents
It's a funny phenomena where no matter how many times you've seen a favorite movie or show, whenever you sit for a rewatch your insides are begging a character to veer off-script and make a better decision that will give the story a more satisfying ending. All too often, being a Charger fan feels like watching reruns, especially in the summer months. Depth charts with starting holes and position groups shallower than an RV shower basin torment fans as they wait for late acquisitions that seem obvious to all, until a Spencer Pulley, Trent Scott or Storm Norton are cemented as starters by Week 1 or 2.
Tom changed direction here by filling in rotational depth pieces with veteran signings post-draft. These signings almost mirrored the types of moves Tom would make and overpay for early in free agency, such as:
- Instead of 36 year old Thomas Davis, LB, for $10.5mil/2 years (2019), how about Kyle Van Noy at 31 for $2,250,000?
- Instead of 31 year old Chris Harris, slot, for $17mil/2 years (2020), how about Bryce Callahan at 31 for $1,272,500?
- Instead of 32 year old Linval Joseph, DT, for $17mil/2 years (2020), how about Morgan Fox at 28 for $1,187,500?
The 2022 Regular Season
Although Tom changed his habits in 3 of the 5 major phases I highlighted above, the regular season played out largely the same for the Chargers. Injuries plagued the team at an alarming rate, and while many teams continued pushing in their chips to stoke their postseason chances, Tom avoided any impactful midseason signings or trades outside of taking a post-cuts flier on Sony Michel which looked great at the time, but ended up floundering. Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh signed with the Eagles ($2,000,000 and $750,000 respectively) the same week the Chargers had just placed their second and third starting DT's on the IR. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams missed major portions of the season, and when Jalen Guyton went down with a season-ending injury, Telesco stayed the course and failed to bring in additional support at wide receiver, instead filling in additional practice squad players underneath our practice squad activiations.
The season concluded in a way Charger fans know all too well: in a self-induced implosion of questionable play-calling and decision-making. Roster holes loomed large in their first postseason visit in four years. Rolling into the game with only four active wide receivers, the Chargers found themselves down to three by the second quarter, one of which was a practice squad elevation with return duties. The aforementioned concern of offensive line depth reared its ugly head when the late-round rookie savior Jamaree Salyer went down, and practice squad activation Foster Sarell was forced to fill-in at left tackle.
The game ended as a hyperbolic metaphor for the life of a Charger fan: No matter how good things may seem, like a 27 point lead, you can always count on the walls crashing down around you. To this end, Tom nor the season were the least bit different.
What's There to Hope for in 2023?
2023 is an interesting offseason and opportunity for Telesco, greatly contrasted against last offseason, as he enters with a cap deficit instead of a surplus.
The biggest question for Tom is whether he will continue utilizing new tools and tricks to improve as a general manager, or will he revert to his overly cautious ways? The biggest areas for continued improvement for Tom, in my opinion, are as follows:
- Rather than cutting Matt Feiler, attempt to trade him or renegotiate his deal to get some sort of value for him.
- Extend Michael Davis NOW to hopefully lower his cap hit, but allow his deal to expire while he still has value on the market (likely a 2 year extension).
- Manipulate the compensatory formula by avoiding signing free agents before the draft. Any cap opened up with restructures should be used to resign our priority internal free agents, especially those that are disappointed with their open-market offers. There is no excuse with our long list of outgoing free agents to not earn four compensatory picks for 2024.
- Fill necessary starting roles with players acquired via trade, or prove-it deals signed after May 1st. Prove the process behind the best value-acquisitions signed last year (Fox, Van Noy, Callahan) were not flukes. DO NOT restructure deals and move cap space to spend money on free agents; doing so is trading away future draft capital, while paying top-dollar for a free agent.
- If Fox, Van Noy, or Callahan are unsigned by May 1st, give them the UFA Tender (110% of 2022 pay for 2023 if they aren't signed elsewhere, and extends their compensatory window is they do).
- Trade down in the draft, attempting to gain additional Day 2 or early Day 3 picks. This requires you to pick up the phone, not "wait and see" if anyone calls!
- Armed with extra 2024 compensatory draft capital, weaponize your 2024 picks as trade assets, both in the off-season and while acquiring in-season reinforcements.
- Continue to acquire veteran talent at positions of need through the summer - don't be afraid to stash recent draft picks on the practice squad as they rarely get stolen and priority players can be protected.