The Los Angeles Chargers free agency wasn’t just a success; they also showed us how to build a Super Bowl contender for years to come.
Acquiring Khalil Mack, J.C. Jackson, and Sebastian Joseph-Day made all the headlines, but the groundwork laid from previous offseasons will make them a successful franchise. I will go over what the Chargers got right, what many other teams get wrong, and why a lot of luck goes into building a top-tier franchise.
How the L.A. Chargers Free Agency Success Built a Contender
Identify Your Quarterback
When you draft a quarterback, you think you have your quarterback of the future. Drafting a quarterback, even in the first round, isn’t a guarantee you’ll have your guy for the next two decades. Between 2010 and 2019, there were 30 quarterbacks drafted in the first round over ten drafts. Seventeen of those guys were definitely busts, not even including on-the-fence quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, or Baker Mayfield. Depending on your opinion of those guys, that’s potentially 22 out of 30 quarterbacks drafted who didn’t work out for one reason or another.
So how do you know you have your quarterback of the future? You do everything you can to prop him up for success. For better or worse, it’s a quarterback-driven league, and the sooner you know you have your guy, the better. After Chargers team doctors recognized Justin Herbert was their guy, they maimed Tyrod Taylor to guarantee Herbert the starting spot. Once the rest of the organization recognized Herbert and his rocket arm were pretty good throughout the 2020 season, they built around him and for him.
The 2020 Chargers had a severe offensive line problem that left their crown jewel running for his life. Because they already had some talented receivers in place, they could pour all their resources into the trenches. In the 2021 offseason, the Chargers signed Matt Feiler, Oday Aboushi, and Corey Linsley. Then they drafted Rashawn Slater in the 1st round. This caused the Charger’s offensive line to jump from 31st to 13th overall, according to ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate. That is how you prop your new quarterback up for success.
Compare this to the Chicago Bears, who have yet to do anything to prop up their young signal-caller, Justin Fields. Trading Mack netted them an extra $6 million in cap space, giving them about $30 million total. They need help on the interior of the offensive line, left tackle, and have the most abysmal receiving corps in the NFL at the moment.
So who was their big free-agent signing thus far? A below-average defensive tackle, Larry Ogunjobi, for a whopping $26.35 million guaranteed. For all the talk of the Jacksonville Jaguars overpaying for middling receivers, at least they’re trying to give Trevor Lawrence something. Lucas Patrick was a good value pick-up for the Bears interior, but if Fields struggles again this season, are we actually going to know whether it’s him or the team around him?
Even if he is a bust, the sooner you know you have your guy, the sooner you can move on. Look how fast the Arizona Cardinals put Josh Rosen out to pasture. The Bears won’t be able to do that because they won’t have any idea if it’s their dreadful roster or their quarterback. They’re even sitting out free agency despite the fact they don’t have a first-round pick! Don’t run your organization like the Chicago Bears.
Front Office Harmony
Like drafting a quarterback, this one can be a bit of a crapshoot. However, nothing will kill Super Bowl hopes faster than a lack of synergy between the head coach and front office. Just ask the Marty Schottenheimer–era Chargers.
You don’t always need the best coaches or general managers for success; you just need those guys on the same page. That’s how the Seattle Seahawks ended up with the Legion of Boom; John Schneider was able to bring in the exact pieces necessary for the defense Pete Carroll envisioned. This works across sports too. Nobody thinks James Jones and Monty Williams are the best GM and coach combo in the NBA. Yet, the Phoenix Suns have been among the most successful franchises since those guys were put in place.
You can see this harmony in the signing of J.C. Jackson. Staley has an offseason quote stating “playing zone is the worst thing to play” against elite quarterbacks. So what does Tom Telesco do? He signs one of the best man coverage corners in the NFL for Staley’s defense.
Telesco has been among the best general managers in the NFL; look at his stellar draft record. Now it seems like he finally found a coach who can put it all together, in the risk-taking, boy scout looking, media swooning, Brandon Staley. A bit of that is luck. We don’t know if a coordinator will be a good head coach until he’s in the position. In the same way, we don’t know if a college quarterback will be good until he puts on an NFL uniform. So the Chargers did get a bit of help from luck twice, but they were prepared enough to capitalize on those opportunities once they presented themselves.
Go All In AFTER You Have Your Building Blocks In Place
I’m not sitting here anointing the Chargers contenders because they spent a bunch in the offseason. I’m praising them because, after a disappointing season in 2021 (and that finish was disappointing), they recognized what they had and got better where they needed to. The Chargers weren’t cheap this offseason, but they got great players to help shore up their most glaring weaknesses.
This isn’t the Dan Snyder-era Washington Commanders (still doesn’t feel right) trying to buy a contender. It was a team with an already high upside putting the finishing touches in place. The Los Angeles Chargers are following a model very close to the Josh Allen era Buffalo Bills. They put all the pieces in on offense to find out if their quarterback was going to be the guy, then once that was established, they spent on their weaknesses.
No team will ever be the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick New England Patriots, and to be honest, they’ve ruined our expectations. However, you’ll have a pretty big window to win the Super Bowl if you have a quarterback on a reasonable contract. The 2019 Chiefs, 2017 Eagles, 2013 Seahawks, 2012 Ravens, 2010 Packers, on and on, can all attest to this. The Chargers are getting Justin Herbert at below market value and are spending while they can. Opportunities like this don’t come around often, and you absolutely have to go all in. The Super Bowl window won’t be held open for you, you have to jump through it.
The Drew Brees New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers Green Bay Packers aren’t disappointing teams; they’re just victims of the salary cap. Unlike the NBA, where you can go over the cap to retain your best players, in the NFL, you’re forced to play within the sandbox, and to fit 53 players in there is a difficult task. Suppose the Los Angeles Chargers win one Super Bowl with Herbert on his rookie contract, that’s an astounding success.
Did the Los Angeles Chargers Win Free Agency?
The Chargers unquestionably won free agency, but the winning started long before free agency began. The winning started even before their disheartening 2021 season. It started because they didn’t overspend when they weren’t a contender, they continued to draft well, and when one of those draft picks turned into a top quarterback, they immediately put him in a position to succeed.
Jackson, Mack, and Joseph-Day were all expensive pieces to add. Hell, re-signing Mike Williams was expensive (although still good value). But the Chargers already had a high ceiling before adding those guys because of Herbert, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, and Derwin James. Now their roster is more well-rounded, Staley got the guys he needed for his defense, and the sky’s the limit for this Los Angeles Chargers team for years to come.