The Bolts are officially entering a new era of Chargers football.
In my 20+ years of fandom, I’ve only been able to truly observe two different eras of Chargers management. I personally cannot wait for what’s about to unfold; there’s reason to hope that this could be the most impactful offseason the Chargers have had in almost two decades.
Before we get started on what we’d like to see with this hire, let’s quickly visit the last two eras of Chargers football.
The A.J. Smith Era
When John Butler passed away in 2004, A.J. Smith replaced him as the Chargers’ general manager. Smith wasn’t a perfect GM, but he executed one of the most impactful trades in NFL history. Rather than trading down in the 2004 draft when Eli Manning stated he wouldn’t play for the Chargers, Smith selected him anyway and worked a trade that brought him Philip Rivers, the Giants third round pick in 2004 and their first and fifth rounders in 2005.
The extra draft capital gave Smith the extra juice needed to draft consecutive classes became the foundation the Chargers rode to success for the next decade. After the 2005 season, the Bolts never finished lower than 2nd in the division until Smith’s firing at the end of the 2012 season.
Smith wasn’t a perfect GM, his tenure could be defined as one of cocky arrogance at times, but featured a willingness to slide up and down the draft board and make in-season moves when the team needed a boost. He worked with two coaches in his time with the team, Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, paling in comparison to the inexperienced first-timers his successor would hire.
The Tom Telesco Era
Tom Telesco took over in 2013, and his tenure couldn’t have been more different. Telesco was hired by a selection committee of Dean and John Spanos, Ed McGuire, and former Packers GM Ron Wolf. Tom Telesco received guidance through his first coaching hire, and this team landed on first time head coach Mike McCoy. After back-to-back 9-7 seasons to start Mike McCoy’s tenure, the team took a downhill spiral and won a collective nine games in the next two seasons.
Telesco would go on to choose two more first-time head coaches that both took similar paths to McCoy: a resurgent first season, a “peak” second season, and a major regression in year three. Staley was the only coach of Telesco’s tenure that didn’t make it through his first contract, as he was fired before the end of his third season.
Telesco’s roster-building legacy will be remembered for drafting some extremely talented first rounders that buoyed the franchise at times, but “hits” in Day Two and Three were few and far between. Perhaps his most damning characteristic was an inability to build value in his roster through trading - in Telesco’s 11 seasons has general manager, he never trading back in the draft to collect additional draft picks, he never traded away a player with value that returned more than a 6th round pick, and he frequently sacrificed draft capital to select players that ultimately wouldn’t survive a second contract with the team.
The wish list for the new era
As the Chargers begin the search for a new General Manager, scouting personnel assistants throughout the league can be a tedious process and like the Telesco hiring, it’s very likely the Spanos family will sift through executives we’ve never heard of to find a gem. We’ll be breaking down potential hires and attaching them to the General Manager Updates stream, but here is a wish list of traits we’d like to see from our next GM:
The confidence and prowess to trade down in the draft
I wrote this article in 2022, with an update in 2023, detailing how closely teams in the NFL trade along the values of the Jimmy Johnson draft chart, and how it almost always yields a very strong return for the team that trades down.
Hiring a general manager that can confidently add draft capital by sliding back in the draft and taking more swings in Days Two and Three would greatly help this team build a more well-rounded roster with much better depth.
A General Manager should ONLY trade up in the draft if he is routinely added extra picks to his war chest. In that scenario, trading up occasionally is OK, but there has to be extra capital to do so without leveraging roster depth.
Aggressiveness in player acquisition post-draft
Depth has been an issue with this squad for a multitude of reasons, not just poor drafting. Telesco routinely had opportunities to add pieces on cheap one-year deals that would have bolstered competition and provided depth with previous starting experience, rather than relying on projects to step up when starters go down. Decisions like not bringing back Kyle Van Noy last year and relying on Chris Rumph to make a leap, or rolling with Trey Pipkins and Storm Norton as the only competition at right and swing tackle for multiple years were questioned by fans at the time they were made, and didn’t yield positive results down the road.
Creativity in contract design, manipulating the compensatory formula
Tom Telesco - or potentially Ed McGuire - had a habit of crafting contracts that had a built-in “rip-cord” in the last year or two of a deal that essentially encouraged the team to cut or extend a player in the last year of their deal. Very few Chargers players completed a second contract and went on to sign elsewhere in free agency for a decent contract that brought Tom Telesco a compensatory pick in the following year.
Creative contract design, perhaps that adds void years to the end of a deal to give players the signing bonus money they desire that often is a sunk cost when a contract is terminated early, could be a solution that aids the next GM in collecting more compensatory picks. The simple act of executing some trade-downs, or trading players away while they still have marketable value, could also begin the snowball of extra draft picks leading to extra compensatory picks years down the line.
Trading in general!
This point needs to be emphasized heavily, so it’s getting it’s own checklist item in addition to being a key component to the other points. Despite Telesco being one of the longest-tenured GM’s the last few years, he seemed incapable of recognizing when a team was selling and capitalizing.
I identified Isaiah Simmons as a player the Chargers should try and steal from the Cardinals in the preseason, as the Cardinals hadn’t taken the fifth-year option on him and seemed keen on a full rebuild. He also was a linebacker/safety hybrid that seemed perfectly suited for Staley’s defense.
Tom Telesco didn’t make a move, but the New York Giants managed to steal Simmons for a 7th round pick and got the Cardinals to take on all his contract but his minimum base pay. While Simmons hasn’t been an every-down player for the Giants, he’s been a very reliable rotational player for them, earning the highest PFF score of his career (70.2).
Strong internal evaluation
Tom Telesco seemed to routinely over-evaluate his draft selections, and be too late to move on from players that were underperforming and replace them. Players like Kenneth Murray, Trey Pipkins, and Jerry Tillery were handed starting positions in camp that they never really seemed to earn, and only one of those three churned out a single season of at-par performance for a starter.
We’ve also seen decisions like retaining Joey Bosa after having a sideline meltdown last season, only to see all the injury concerns fans expressed in the offseason resurface this year. That was likely the last chance to get a strong return on draft capital for Joey, and also sent a very weak message of accountability to the rest of the roster after the disastrous Jaguars loss.
Hanging on to players past their expiration date, or refusing to bring in true competition for higher-profiled players, was a trend under Telesco that we’d love to see change in this new era.
The ability to work with a head coach to build an identity
The one identity that has stuck with the Chargers over the years is one of perpetual underachievement.
The Chargers desperately need a general manager to draft around an identity they envision for this team. Tom Telesco’s strange failure in this area seemed to stem from his belief in basketball-type, big-bodied receivers. He seemed allergic to drafting true speed threats to let Justin Herbert truly build a vertical passing attack.
The team has lacked an attitude in the trenches, consistency on defense, and an ability to run the football for the majority of Telesco’s time. It’s likely partially due to coaching, and partially due to the players being selected; whatever the case, these failures cannot carry over to the new era of Chargers football.
What items are on YOUR wish list?
I’ll be browsing and lurking in the comments, BFTB, and will try to add characteristics that our members want to see as well.
Until the Chargers select their next general manager, the fanbase can enjoy envisioning what new changes to roster building and team culture a new general manager could bring.