Rosters decisions loom for the Chargers as free agency is on the horizon

The Sporting Tribune's Fernando Ramirez writes that the Chargers have some tough decisions to make in the next weeks as the new league year is around the corner.

LOS ANGELES — Jim Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz are the two men in charge of leading the Los Angeles Chargers back to the playoffs and ultimately to the Super Bowl.

First, due to big money, they will make several decisions regarding their roster and some of the playmakers. They must get under the cap on March 13th at 1 p.m. pacific.

Starting with the obvious, Harbaugh has said multiple times that he is excited to work with receiver Keenan Allen. 

Allen is coming off a big season, catching 108 passes for 1,243 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 95 yards a game. The relationship between him and quarterback Justin Herbert has grown as they play together.

The Chargers brass may offer him a new contract to reduce their salary cap, as they are still north of $25 million over.

The man who lines up opposite Allen is Mike Williams, who is set to make $32 million. He is coming off a torn ACL and a back injury the previous season.

Before the injury, Williams was having a strong season and, a year prior, was Herbert’s go-to weapon in the fourth quarter.

He might be the odd man out when it comes to being on the team because that number is too high, and it would save the team $20 million in 2024 while picking up a dead money charge of $12.46 million.

That leaves the team $5 million over the cap without considering what an Allen extension would give them.

Returning to Williams for a second, he has grown as a dangerous deep threat over the last few years and could help a team out even if he is coming off a torn ACL.

“I know what I’m capable of doing,” Williams said after the season ended. “I know that I’m going to come back stronger, faster, and better after this injury. So I mean, yeah, I just got to focus on what I can focus on. That’s me getting back better.”

On Monday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Chargers will not franchise tag running back Austin Ekeler and will allow him to explore free agency.

Ekeler has said multiple times that he wouldn’t “close the door” on returning to the Chargers but that he was excited about the possibility of testing free agency after the season ended.

In the first game of the 2023 season, Ekeler showed out running for a combined 164 yards and one touchdown against the Dolphins but suffered an ankle injury that made him miss three games.

The rest of the season was lackluster, running for 511 yards, 389 receiving yards and five combined touchdowns in 13 games.

There could be a lot of different versions of why 2023 wasn’t his year. Part of it could have been the ankle injury or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore not using him properly, or he might not be the same player. 

Things will change now that Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are leading the offense. Ekeler might come back, but it is highly unlikely. 

Some media people were up in arms when Roman said this to the Chargers media last week.

“Can you imagine Justin Herbert with a great running game?” Roman said. “We don’t know, but I can imagine what it might look like. So that’s kind of the vision.”

He isn’t wrong for saying that.

That style of running the football that Harbaugh and Roman want to run doesn’t fit Ekeler. So, he may find himself on another team in 2024.

On the defensive side of the football, the big question marks are edge rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa.

Mack is due over $38 million, while Bosa is due $36 million. 

Starting with Bosa, he revealed that he had met with Harbaugh.

“The way he talked about his feelings toward this job and toward the future was pretty exciting,” Bosa said to The New York Post.

Bosa has played 14 out of a possible 34 games in the last two seasons, and the injury bug has hit him. The thing is, Harbaugh might come in and say, “clean slate.”

Harbaugh is bringing in a new strength and conditioning staff and could decide to push back Bosa’s contract and keep him. He could also trade him.

If traded or released before one 1st, the Chargers could save $22 million next season and come with a dead money charge of $14,611,666.

When it comes to Mack, he is coming off a career year sacking the opposing quarterback 17 times, and what he meant to the defense last season couldn’t be described.

After the season, Mack was asked by the media his thoughts about his future.

“I know what I bring to the game,” Mack said, “understanding that I want to be a team guy. Whatever team, I’m not in control of that right now.”

Mack is owed a heavy amount of money, but outside of Allen, Harbaugh may think long and hard about keeping him. Not only was Mack one of the best pass rushers in 2023, but the way he affected the run game was textbook.

The Chargers improved somewhat in run defense last season, and a big part was because Mack played every down.

Now that Harbaugh is the coach and the man is intertwined with winning, that may make Mack want to stay.

“At the end of the day, man, trying to win ball games, and that’s all I care about,” Mack said.

Mack wants to win a Super Bowl. He has been on the Raiders and Bears, where the quarterback and the organization weren’t ideal then, but things have changed in Los Angeles. This might be his best chance.

The cap increase could work in the Chargers favor to be able to keep both pass rushers. 

“It gives us, certainly, some flexibility a little bit, more

increased flexibility,” Hortiz said at the combine. “We’ll continue to talk through that over the next couple of weeks and have a plan of attack shortly.”

New defensive coordinator Jesse Minter was asked about the possibility of having them and said it was “above my pay grade,” but he obviously would like to have them.

“As a coach, that’s what you’d love,” Minter told the Chargers media. “I’d love to have those three.”

By all three, he means Bosa, Mack, and second-year player Tuli Tuipulotu. Last season, they thrived when all three were on the field simultaneously.

Many decisions are set to come as the new league year starts on March 14th. They can’t keep them all, but certainly, they can keep the ones who could be building blocks to try and compete in 2024.