Chargers' top free-agency priority: Find linemen to protect Justin Herbert

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Jeff Miller
·5 min read
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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 17: Center Dan Feeney #66 of the Los Angeles Chargers readies at the line of scrimmage.
Chargers center Dan Feeney prepares to snap the ball against the Las Vegas Raiders on Dec. 17. The Chargers could be aggressive in the free-agent market for offensive linemen. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Exactly one year ago, the dominant topic could not have been more tantalizing, the Chargers a potential destination for the most celebrated NFL free agent ever.

Of course, Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay instead, a decision that worked out well for everybody.

Brady and the Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV, while the Chargers discovered a possible franchise cornerstone in Justin Herbert.

Now, free agency 2021 arrives for the Chargers with a dominant topic that is much less provocative than quarterback but no less significant.

Protecting the quarterback is the new theme, their offensive line widely considered to be among the poorest in the league.

Immediately after the season, general manager Tom Telesco admitted the Chargers need “a lot of improvement” in front of Herbert but — noting the talent on the roster — added, “We have an opportunity to ascend and ascend quickly.”

Rising from a 7-9 finish and second consecutive year without a playoff berth probably can happen only with a more sound offensive foundation.

The Chargers have nine draft picks in April, including four among the first 100 selections. As of today, they are expected to be looking for offensive line help right from their first choice, No. 13 overall.

That could change depending on what Telesco is able to accomplish in a free-agency period that promises to be active.

With the salary cap shrinking to $182.5 million because of revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, several veterans league-wide have been released, deepening the pool of available, established players.

The Chargers released right guard Trai Turner on Friday and cornerback Casey Hayward on Saturday, moves that saved $21.25 million against the cap.

Hayward, a two-time Pro Bowl player, joined the team as a free agent in 2016. Telesco called him “a prominent leader” and “shining example” in a statement.

The Chargers now have about $45 million of effective cap space — according to overthecap.com — which, as of Saturday afternoon, was the fifth-most in the NFL.

Still, rebuilding the offensive line won’t be a simple task given the economic pinch and the number of teams looking for similar upgrades.

Chargers center Dan Feeney makes two fists.
Chargers center Dan Feeney celebrates against the Las Vegas Raiders in November. (Peter Joneleit / Associated Press)

Three of the Chargers’ starters upfront — center Dan Feeney, left guard Forrest Lamp and left tackle Sam Tevi — all will be unrestricted free agents.

Feeney, a third-round pick four years ago, has started 59 games in a row — including the postseason — and played every offensive snap in 57 of them. He was used mostly at guard before moving to center last year.

He would seem to be the most likely of the three unrestricted free agents to return, though the Chargers have been among the teams linked to Corey Linsley, who spent the last seven seasons as Green Bay’s center.

The free-agent tackle market includes such players as Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bow honoree with Pittsburgh, and Riley Reiff, who was just cut by Minnesota. Baltimore’s Orlando Brown Jr. could be a trade possibility.

Should the Chargers add a center, Feeney could move back to guard, if he’s re-signed. Former New England Patriot Joe Thuney is the top guard available, though he will command a fitting salary.

Pro Football Focus’ next-best options include Germain Ifedi (formerly of Chicago) and Larry Warford (New Orleans).

The Chargers also have a need at the end of their offensive line, in the spot normally occupied by Hunter Henry. The tight end will be a free agent after the Chargers opted to not franchise tag him.

They still hope to bring back Henry on a multi-year extension, but he figures to attract plenty of interest. That could drive his salary above what the Chargers are willing to pay.

The other free-agent tight ends available include veterans in Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph, New Orleans’ Jared Cook and the Rams’ Gerald Everett.

Cook, who turns 34 in April, spent the last two seasons with Joe Lombardi, a former Saints assistant who is now the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.

Such connections often lead to reunions in this league, and the Chargers have a new head coach in Brandon Staley and a largely overhauled staff, meaning they have connections all over the place.

“We have a lot of guys from a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different places,” Telesco said. “I think that’s going to help us, at least in Year 1, as we’re looking at players from the outside.”

That group includes two other Rams in edge rusher Leonard Floyd and safety John Johnson III, both of whom stood out a year ago for Staley when he was their defensive coordinator.

Floyd would be a particularly good fit for the Chargers, filling a position where they need help. Johnson could be an option, especially if the Chargers lose Rayshawn Jenkins in free agency.

“The word that just always expressed itself in my mind was possibility,” Staley said of the Chargers during his introductory news conference in January. “I think there’s so much possibility here.”

The same could be said of this offseason, especially for a team with significant holes to fill.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.