Chargers can build Super Bowl team following the Chiefs’ model

The Sporting Tribune's Fernando Ramirez writes Jim Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz could build a championship team but following the Kansas City Chiefs' approach could be the smartest way to go.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — An AFC West team has been crowned the Super Bowl champion for the third time in the last four years. Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and Travis Kelce have won three championships together.

They beat the San Francisco 49ers 25-22 in a game that went into overtime, and after some questionable Kyle Shanahan decisions, Reid, Mahomes, and that underperforming offense won it all.

This Super Bowl victory leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers fans.

Now, whenever a team wins the Super Bowl, others try to copy the same model to play catch up. What Kansas City has done is a complex model to follow. Very hard.

They have hit on many draft picks and signed quality free agents that have contributed. Their draft picks have emerged quickly to make an impact.

Focusing on the Chargers, they can turn this around quickly now that they have a head coach in Jim Harbaugh.

He changes everything for them, whether it is on the practice field, on the field, or in their culture. 

Harbaugh is a winner and brings a winner mentality while also bringing the hunger of wanting to win a championship — which is a starvation the Spanos share deeply.

Both Harbaugh and Spanos have lost a Super Bowl. Spanos in 1995 against the Steve Young led 49ers, Harbaugh to his brother John’s Baltimore Ravens in 2013.

It is a loss that still haunts Harbaugh today.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that game and what we could’ve done down at the end, (seven) yards away from getting into the end zone,” Harbaugh said in Las Vegas, via the Associated Press. “You leave that field, and you go, there might be other days. Then you start thinking that might be the only day. Just wanted another shot at it, take another crack.”

The Spanos family has done everything that Harbaugh has asked. He has the keys to the 1984 Toyota Corolla and is looking to trade it in for a Rolls-Royce Boat Tail that costs $26.2 million. He can do that.

Obviously, it isn’t going to happen overnight, but he brought in a general manager, Joe Hortiz, who worked with his brother, John, in Baltimore for years. He has an eye for talent.

“Before I got the interview here, we talked about Batman and Robin, and certainly that’s the way we’re going to operate. The only thing is, I’m not wearing tights. I may put a cape on, but I’m not wearing tights,” Hortiz said last Tuesday during his introductory news conference.

They are $45.8 million over the cap, but Hortiz and Harbaugh should be able to navigate through it relatively easily by making some roster decisions.

So, how did Kansas City build this squad to go back-to-back even after trading away all-pro receiver Tyreek Hill? Let’s take a look.

The one apparent free agent the Chiefs got that the Chargers will not be able to acquire is Taylor Swift. 

That is unrealistic, but on the field, they have a shot.

They built the defense through the draft and free agency. The main contributors from Sunday were linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (2nd round in 2020), cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (4th round in 2020), linebacker Nick Bolton (2nd round in 2021), cornerback Trent McDuffie (1st round in 2022), and pass rusher George Karlaftis (1st round in 2022).

They signed safeties Justin Reid and Mike Edwards as free agents making a big difference for the secondary. They also drafted defensive tackle Chris Jones in the second round in 2016.

That is a lot of talent.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his staff quickly developed this talent, and they have made a big difference in the last two seasons.

They played four opponents in the playoffs that featured high powered offenses. They held Miami to seven points, Buffalo to 24, Baltimore to ten…TEN, and San Francisco to 22.

The Chargers have some talent on defense but have some holes. 

Some names that will benefit from the reported coaching hires that Harbaugh has made will be safety Derwin James, cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., linebacker Daiyan Henley, defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu, 

Outside of those players, except for maybe defensive lineman Morgan Fox, everyone else might not be back.

The real question marks are edge rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. Bosa has been injured the last few seasons, while Mack is coming off a defensive player of the year type of season.

They are owed a combined $75 million. Is it worth it to keep them? Yes.

The Chargers could push back their contracts and pay it in the future to give them a tremendous pass-rushing duo along with Tuipulotu. When the trio was on the field together, they were dangerous.

If he returns, Bosa could benefit from the addition of strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.

The Chargers desperately will need defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. Basically, they have needs all over.

Now to the offensive side, they drafted center Creed Humphrey (2nd round in 2021), guard Nick Allegretti (7th round in 2019), who stepped in for an injured Joe Thuney, guard Trey Smith (6th round in 2021), running back Isiah Pacheco (7th round in 2022), and wide receiver Rashee Rice (2nd round in 2023).

They offense also signed free agents like Thuney, running back Jerick McKinnon, and tackles Jawaan Taylor/Donovan Smith.

The Chargers offense has as many questions as the defense.

They have quarterback Justin Herbert, so that is already a good start.

Just as in the Mack/Bosa dilemma, there is one on offense with receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Allen is coming off a solid season, while Williams tore his ACL in week three against Minnesota.

Harbaugh has raved about Allen multiple times, so that will likely be an extension for less of a cap hit. Williams could be the odd man out, especially coming off of injury.

They also have Joshua Palmer, who has shown glimpses of being a solid contributor if he can stay healthy. Rookie receiver Quentin Johnston will benefit the most from the addition of Harbaugh and receivers coach Sanjay Lal, as it felt like he wasn’t used correctly by the previous staff.

On offense, they have left tackle Rashawn Slater, who will be looking to regain his rookie year form. Two players who will benefit from the addition of offensive line coach Mike Devlin are guards Jamaree Salyer, Zion Johnson, Jordan McFadden, and right tackle Trey Pipkins.

Their biggest hit is the retirement of center Corey Linsley, an all-pro. The Chargers will need to draft or sign a center because there isn’t one on their current roster. If the Linsley injury showed anything in 2023, it was how crucial a top-notch center is for Herbert.

They desperately need a tight end. The Chiefs have probably one of, if not the greatest tight end of all-time in Travis Kelce. Everyone has a top tight end, even when looking at the top teams in the AFC. Baltimore has Mark Andrews, Buffalo has Dalton Kincaid, and Houston has Dalton Schultz.

Running back has already been an interesting talking point for the team. It is no secret that Harbaugh likes to run the football and will probably feature three backs.

Who will be those three? Who knows.

Austin Ekeler is expected to hit free agency this offseason.

“If things go well, it’s going to be because of guys like Austin Ekeler and the players,” Harbaugh said, per Associated Press’ Rob Maaddi. “I like Austin Ekeler.”

Here is the tricky part. Ekeler is coming off his worst season as a pro, as he had 3.5 rushing yards per attempt (the lowest of his career). He didn’t have the same elusiveness as in the past. The offensive line wasn’t good, but will the Chargers let him walk or try to bring him back for a lower salary will be something to watch.

Former teammate of Harbaugh, Ryan Leaf, mentioned impending free agent running back Saquon Barkley. He was asked about it by Kay Adams on her show Up & Adams, last week.

“I’ve got nothing but respect for Coach Harbaugh,” Barkley said on the show. “I’m a big fan of Justin Herbert. I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But, hey, if the opportunity was able to present itself, I definitely wouldn’t be against it.”

It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but Harbaugh and Hortiz can do it. Maybe not this year. Maybe not in 2025. But it all starts on March 13th when free agency begins.

The Chargers also have the fifth pick overall. Some mock drafts have them drafting receiver Malik Nabers, others tight end Brock Bowers, or even a tackle.

They could also trade back in the first round, something they haven’t done since 2003 when they traded the 15th overall pick with Philadelphia for their 30th and 62nd picks that became cornerback Sammy Davis and safety Terrance Kiel. 

There are many possibilities, but for the Chargers, the big thing was to get a quarterback, and they drafted one in 2020, who is easily a top-three quarterback in the league. They just hired their head coach in Harbaugh.

Now, it is about building the team around them. They must be smart and effective during free agency and then in the draft. They could have done better to build depth or establish players in the past, but it is a new era.

The model is there from the Super Bowl champions. They have built it and now have won three out of four.

Harbaugh leading the show means they can turn things around and compete. Super Bowl aspirations will be there, but as of now, it is about building around the offense around Herbert and the defense around James.

“That’s not going to be, ‘Let’s gut it and start over.’ We’re going to try to win this year, but you make the right decisions and the best decisions that give us flexibility this year and going forward,” Hortiz said.