His first three draft picks as the San Diego Chargers' general manager started as rookies for a playoff team, the other three appear to be future contributors and he targeted free agents such as running back Danny Woodhead, but Tom Telesco knows it's back to the drawing board each spring when constructing his 53-man roster.
"We have a number of decisions to make," Telesco said at the Scouting Combine.
Heading the free agent list is inside linebacker Donald Butler, the only full-time starter set to cash in. The bigger decisions will likely come after evaluating the contracts of veterans with bloated salary cap figures - including wide receiver Eddie Royal's $6 million figure for 2014.
The Chargers stand to benefit from the report that the league is projected to raise the cap about five percent to around $130 million, but Telesco admitted the team doesn't have the greatest cap flexibility this offseason.
Among the reasons the Chargers climbed off the mat last year and snapped their three-season streak of missing the playoffs was Telesco's work during the draft.
He snagged rugged right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round. The behemoth from Alabama arrived at the team's offseason program and was never overwhelmed by being thrown into the lineup, according to Telesco.
Improving inside linebacker Manti Te'o became a starter after getting picked in the second round. While he didn't make many game-changing plays, Te'o acquitted himself well, especially considering the dead-girlfriend hoax that dominated headlines leading up to last year's draft.
"He's handled himself well," said Telesco. "He had some great support along the way. Manti is very smart and very mature."
And few rookies had better seasons than wide receiver Keenan Allen, a steal who fell to the third round in part due to concerns about a knee injury that never posed a problem during his rookie season. Allen fought through the proverbial rookie wall to finish with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns.
"We're happy with the group," Telesco said about his first rookie class.
Among the blemishes to be addressed this offseason is a shaky pass defense. And there are concerns along the offensive line. The Chargers are also bent on improving their pass rush.
A complementary receiver to pair with Allen, and a true nose tackle to anchor the team's 3-4 alignment are also on the wish list.
The Chargers currently have seven picks in May's draft, including the 25th overall selection.
--After contemplating retirement, Chargers center Nick Hardwick decided to return for his 11th season.
Hardwick has one year remaining on his three-year deal.
"I told them I expect to play next season," Hardwick told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Hardwick sustained a concussion during the Chargers' playoff win against the Cincinnati Bengals in January and dealt with recurring neck stingers during the season.
"I wanted to take a month off where I didn't have to think about football," Hardwick said. "I just wanted to be honest with where my body is, where my brain is, where we're at and where we want to go. Just give an honest assessment. My body feels great. My brain feels great. I do think there's better football ahead of me."
The 2004 third-round pick has experienced several ups and downs during his career. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2007. He had major ankle surgery in 2008. He was on a playoff team five of his first six seasons in the NFL. Then, he experienced a three-year drought from the postseason.
The Chargers rebounded in 2013 with a 9-7 record and a return to the playoffs.
"I feel like we've turned the corner," Hardwick said. "I want to see it through. I think this team has a lot of potential. We're going to pick up where we left off at the end of the season. I expect really good things from this football team moving forward."
Hardwick, 32, has made 135 career regular-season starts and has not missed a game in four seasons.
"I think every game is like cliff diving," Hardwick said. "You stand on the ledge, and you think, '(Wow), am I really going to do this?' I still get really pumped up, really nervous. And then when you jump off the cliff, you have the greatest time of your life, and you realize that everything's going to be fine. That's when the game starts. It is so fun."
Hardwick can make up to $4.4 million this year, including a $1 million roster bonus.
--Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney continues to recover from the torn quadriceps that ended his 2014 season in September, and is under contract with the Chargers for 2014.
"He's still rehabbing. We'll go from there," Telesco said at the combine. "It's still only February. It's still early."
--Wide receiver Danario Alexander was considered a long shot to return next season after missing last season with another knee injury. His odds grew longer with reports that he has suffered an infection after undergoing knee surgery and he may not be available for the 2014 campaign.
--Wide receiver Vincent Brown didn't emerge as some had expected following the season ending injuries to Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander last season, but Telesco was pleased with his Brown's 41 catches for 472 yards and a touchdown in 2013 considering he had missed the entire previous season.
"It was almost like a rookie year," Telesco said of Brown's 2013 campaign. "He showed promise as a route-runner and making some plays downfield. So we'll see where it goes.
-- John Spanos, the team's Executive Vice President Football Operations, said a player's work at the NFL Scouting Combine is paints just part of the picture.
"It's certainly a big piece,'' Spanos told chargers.com. "I like to say the meat of a guy's grade is going to be the tape work, the college film and what he does on the field.''
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Can a player play? In the end you need to be able to play in this league." - Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, when asked about the challenges faced by Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who publicly announced he is gay.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Inside linebacker Donald Butler announced on his Twitter account on Friday, Feb. 28 that he re-signed with the Chargers. The Chargers confirmed the agreement later that day.
"Feeling blessed! Y'all heard it here first! Deal is done!! SD I aint going no where!! Too excited!!" Butler wrote via Twitter.
Butler would have become an unrestricted free agent March 11, although both parties had said they expected Butler to re-sign with the Chargers.
In a statement, general manager Tom Telesco said, "We're excited to have Donald remain a San Diego Charger. We've said all along that we'd like to keep as many of our own players as possible and Donald is a great example of that. He's a big part of what we are building on defense and he's not only one of the leaders of our defense on the field, but his teammates voted him a team captain last year showing that he's also a leader inside the locker room."
Said Butler, "I'd first like to thank Dean Spanos and the entire Chargers organization for believing in me and giving me this tremendous opportunity. Staying in San Diego was my goal and I'm really blessed to have this opportunity. We've got a very good young defense and I look forward to being a part of it for years to come as we continue to grow and get even better."
A 2010 third-round draft pick from the University of Washington who was set to become a free agent, Butler comes off a 2013 regular season in which he ranked second on the team in tackles with 99, despite missing three games in late October/early November due to injury.
--The Chargers released veteran fullback Le'Ron McClain on Tuesday (March 4), clearing $2.5 million in salary cap space.
The Chargers also released cornerbacks Derek Cox and Johnny Patrick.
The 29-year-old McClain, who only played 154 snaps on offense last year and only had 11 rush attempts for 32 yards, was scheduled to enter the final season of his three-year contract. He played in 34 games for the Chargers in two seasons, including playoffs. He totaled 25 carries for 74 yards and 10 catches for 22 yards.
Cox joined the team as an unrestricted free agent from Jacksonville in 2013. Last season, he played in 18 games, including playoffs. In the regular season, Cox recorded 39 tackles and six passes defensed.
Patrick started four of the 13 games he played in 2013, recording 36 tackles and an interception. He ended the season on the reserved-injured list due to an ankle injury.
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March
--WR Danario Alexander
--WR Seyi Ajirotutu
--RB Ronnie Brown
--WR Lavelle Hawkins
--CB Richard Marshall
--C Rich Ohrnberger
--LG Chad Rinehart
--SS Darrell Stuckey
--DT Cam Thomas
--ILB Reggie Walker
CORNERBACK: If wanting to pick on the Chargers' defense, all eyes turned toward the cornerback spot. They need a lot of help there.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: There remains a big hole in the interior of the Chargers' 3-4 defensive scheme and the linebackers often paid the price.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Finding someone, anyone, that can put pressure on the quarterback is a real need; could help on the back side, too.
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