Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Up today: the Chargers, who have a lot of things to tackle in order to prevent another four-win season. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to the draft.
Key free agents
S Jahleel Addae (RFA), OT Joe Barksdale, WR Malcom Floyd, TE Antonio Gates, TE Ladarius Green, OT Chris Hairston, DE Ricardo Mathews, DE Kendall Reyes, CB Patrick Robinson, S Eric Weddle
Players that must be re-signed
Addae, Barksdale, Gates, Robinson: Unfortunately for the Chargers (or at least for their fans), it’s not even worth including safety Eric Weddle on this list—the writing was on the wall long ago for the nine-year vet. The situation only grew uglier during the 2015 season, hitting its nadir when Weddle, already on injured reserve, was fined for watching his daughter perform during halftime of a game.
The inevitable sight of Weddle sporting a different uniform for the first time in his NFL career is the main reason—perhaps the only reason—that Addae’s return is a must. The restricted free agent doesn't exactly inspire total confidence, but he was a 13-game starter last year. The Chargers need him as a fail-safe.
Barksdale should be the easiest call on this list. The 28-year-old started all 16 games and has become a dependable right tackle amid another injury-plagued season from the Chargers’ O-line. His durability combined with his strong 2015 will put him on a lot of other radars, though. GM Tom Telesco could be outbid here.
The tight end spot could be a mess in short order, too. Four Chargers caught a pass from that position in 2015: Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green, John Phillips and David Johnson. All of them are about to hit the market.
If San Diego’s choice comes down to Gates or Green, what will be the call? Gates obviously is the bigger name. Letting him go on the heels of Weddle’s messy departure would further strain the relationship between the team and its fans. But he's also 10 years older than Green and slumped through a significant statistical drop-off last season. The upside is higher for Green, yet the Chargers have to be uncertain of what exactly they would get from him in a No. 1 role.
Gates does bring the benefit of his rapport with Philip Rivers, though, and that's gotta count for something.
Robinson may have played his way into the plans with a career-reviving 2015 season. While he won’t make or break the Chargers’ off-season, he likely won’t cost all that much to keep around.
Most important position to improve
Safety: We’ll get to the offensive line in a minute. However, Weddle’s departure creates an absolute chasm. Telesco eventually may be proven wise for standing his ground against the 31-year-old safety’s contract demands, but he somehow has to find a suitable replacement before September. The Chargers really could use two safety starters, with Addae perhaps more appropriately slotted in as depth.
The issue is where they actually go to find help. The draft is the most direct line, with San Diego holding picks Nos. 3, 35 and 66. They could have a shot at Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey early in Round 1 or, if not, will be in range for help in the second and third rounds.
Free agency would be a tougher road to hoe. With Eric Berry drawing the franchise tag from Kansas City, there aren't any available upgrades on Weddle. Anyone remotely comparable will come at a price.
The safety spots loom as a substantial problem for the 2016 Chargers.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle, nose tackle, offensive tackle, tight end, wide receiver. Maybe this is the year that the Chargers’ offensive line actually stays healthy. Barksdale, King Dunlap and Orlando Franklin all have prior NFL success on which to draw from; D.J. Fluker remains a part of the team’s long-term plans and so does center Chris Watt, though to a far lesser extent after he missed nearly all of the 2015 season.
What San Diego badly needs up front is depth, as it has learned time and again over the past couple of seasons. Both Dunlap and Fluker have suffered from repeated concussions, so they are in tenuous spots at best.
The defensive line features a pair of free-agent names itself, in Kendall Reyes and Ricardo Mathews. It’s safe to assume that San Diego hangs onto at least one of the pair—Reyes’s career overall has been disappointing but he improved last year; Mathews, who was decent when called upon, would be a cheaper option.
Even with both Reyes and Mathews back, Telesco should be hunting additional talent along the defensive line. The Chargers do not have a great option at nose tackle nor do they don’t have another traditional DT to team up with Corey Liuget inside.
And what of the offense? Keenan Allen caught 67 balls last season ... in eight games. The Chargers need him to stay healthy. Stevie Johnson missed six games and Malcom Floyd is set to retire, so the depth chart is shy on talent regardless of whether or not Allen makes it through a full season.
San Diego also has to figure out its tight end plans once Gates is out of the picture (which could be as early as this week). Is it Green? Another free agent? A rookie?
Overall priority this offseason
Prevent another O-line meltdown. There is only so much a team can do to safeguard against injuries. If three or four offensive linemen fall, odds are there will not be enough passable fill-ins.
So San Diego’s approach there this off-season has to be two-fold. First and foremost, the Chargers must determine if Dunlap and their other previously injured blockers should be counted on to hold down the fort moving forward. If there are doubts about how well those players can rebound, Plan B has to be put in motion immediately.
Second, Telesco has to do whatever he can to stockpile depth in March and April, rather than scouring the wire in October or November. Again, a team only can do so much due to roster limits. Given how things have gone in recent seasons, though, carrying an extra lineman or three could be worthwhile.