By Adam Kerr
On January 24, the Los Angeles Chargers shook up the football world. L.A. agreed to a five-year deal with former Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has been one of the most coveted head coaching candidates across the NFL for the past few years. Since then, he’s only boosted his portfolio with a National Championship from this January. Now, the legendary college coach who has brought winning along with him wherever he goes lands in Los Angeles with the historically lackluster Chargers. Can he bring a Lombardi to his former team? Only time can tell, but here’s some things he can do to speed up the process.
One thing that’s not being talked about as much as it should be is the staff Harbaugh is putting together. First, he got his defensive coordinator from Michigan – Jesse Minter – to join him. Should Minter have decided to leave Michigan, he would’ve been one of the most sought-after DCs in this cycle. Minter and Harbaugh’s defenses up in Ann Arbor were dominant and comparable to the current Baltimore Ravens. Now with the Chargers, Minter inherits stars like Derwin James, Asante Samuel Jr, and Khalil Mack & Joey Bosa (more on them later).
After Minter, the Chargers were able to sign former Michigan Strength & Conditioning Coach Ben Herbert. Lots of LA’s problems in the past few years have stemmed from injuries. Whether it’s Joey Bosa, Mike Williams, or somebody else, it seems like the best Chargers are always missing time. Now they land one of the best conditioning coaches in football, and Herbert & Harbaugh together will instill the idea of “more is more” into this roster in no time. They will retain and empower the guys who are fired up to play under Harbaugh and say goodbye to the ones who cannot fit in the system. Of course, contending with this team can only happen once some obstacles are overcome.
First off, Los Angeles is over $40 million over the salary cap. Those stars previously mentioned aren’t free. With their aging, expensive talent, they have some tough decisions to make. One of Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa will likely be gone next year, and that one is a controversial decision. On one hand, Joey Bosa has less value in a possible trade and he has been with the team for a longer period of time. However, Khalil Mack is coming off of a 17-sack season and has a much shorter injury history than Bosa. Therefore, with the goal of contention, Joey Bosa will be traded for draft capital and Mack will stay in LA for the season. The other elephant in the room is Mike Williams. The 29-year-old is due around $20 million this season and can not stay on the field no matter how hard he tries. Williams is another player who should be on watch to be moved, and if they want any spending room in free agency, they will have to part ways one way or another. Lastly, cut Eric Kendricks and save around $6 million on the veteran LB. After they move on from those contracts, Coach Harbaugh should be able to convince some players to restructure their contracts to compete for a Super Bowl.
Now that the Chargers have some spending room, they can make a bit of a splash in free agency. Reports say that Harbaugh wants Giants superstar RB Saquon Barkley to replace Austin Ekeler. That may not be too practical, but it is something to keep an eye on if they clear up enough space. However, it is known that Jim Harbaugh runs an offense predicated on physicality and the run, and there is the perfect man available for that purpose. Derrick Henry will hit the market in March, and between coming off of a down year and the fact that he isn’t getting any younger, they might be able to get the four-time Pro Bowler for less than what most would expect. Henry could lead the way for the Chargers running back committee for the next couple of years before their 2024 rookie can take over the reins.
If the front office gets rid of Mike Williams, there is a hole to fill at WR. Depending on the cost, Calvin Ridley could be an interesting fit with the team. He could be a great WR2 while they hope to develop 2023 first-rounder Quentin Johnston more. Another reported option could be splurging big for Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins to be the long-term first option. However, Higgins would be very expensive and wouldn’t leave much room for anything else.
The last position of need – and probably the most important – is cornerback. The Chargers defense last year was one of the worst in football, and while Brandon Staley didn’t help that by any means, it doesn’t take a football expert to see that LA doesn’t have the best CB corps by any means. Asante Samuel Jr. is a great young player, but outside of that, they don’t have much to throw at opposing wideouts, Derwin James has played in coverage recently, but Harbaugh and Minter’s system will likely use him more as a LB/S hybrid, putting closer to the line of scrimmage most of the time. With that being said, they will need to really target the secondary in Free Agency, since a rookie wouldn’t give them the immediate impact that they would want. That’s why a guy like Patrick Queen is someone they should aggressively pursue, no matter how slim the odds seem. Other notable corners in free agency are Kenny Moore, Jaylon Johnson, and Kendall Fuller.
Lastly is the draft, and this is a huge one for Joe Horitz and his new regime. Horitz has an incredible track record as director of player personnel with the Baltimore Ravens, seeing that many of his draft picks helped get Baltimore to the AFC Championship. Now Horitz, Harbaugh & co. are tasked with starting a youth movement with the Chargers. Their cap troubles mean that they need to bring in promising players on rookie contracts, and the fifth overall pick can be very crucial to that. It can be assumed that in the top four, Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Marvin Harrison Jr. are all locks. That fourth guy will probably be Heisman winner Jayden Daniels, meaning the Chargers will have their pick at any pass catcher they want (minus Harrison). The right pick is Brock Bowers. Tight Ends are on the rise in the NFL, and now the Chargers – a team in need of a long-term tight end – are in the position to draft the greatest tight end prospect to ever enter the draft. Malik Nabers out of LSU would also be a good pick, but there is not much of a downside to Bowers and the Chargers wouldn’t regret taking him with the fifth pick.
To address the long-term RB need, they could look to a second-day pick. Blake Corum catches attention because of his experience with Jim Harbaugh as he looks to bring in guys who know his coaching style. The only downside with Corum is that he will be a 24-year-old rookie, and by the time Derrick Henry’s time is over (in this hypothetical), Corum will be the same age as many running backs are when they leave their primes. Braelon Allen and Jonathan Brooks also have very strong cases to go to Los Angeles with their play last season. Two other prospects the Chargers should target are OL Jackson Powers-Johnson and DT T’Vondre Sweat. With the remaining picks, they should target corner, free safety, center, and linebacker.
After the draft, the Chargers should be set with their championship-hopeful roster. Of course, this is a best-case scenario for the team, but Jim Harbaugh’s history of immediate winning is hard to ignore as he takes over this team that is a couple of moves away from contention.