As the Los Angeles Chargers enter the 2020 offseason, they feel the pull of two competing forces. On one side, the departure of longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers forces the team to find a new identity after more than a decade. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster remains mostly unchanged from the one that went 12-4 two seasons ago and reached the divisional round of the playoffs. How the Chargers navigate these muddied waters will go a long way toward determining the future of their most prominent leaders.
Though 2019 didn't go as expected, the Chargers remain committed to head coach Anthony Lynn, who received a one-year contract extension in January. Despite the new deal, Lynn and his coaching staff likely need to show marked improvement next season in order to avoid a regime change. And though the roster remains talented, playing in the same division as the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs and superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes doesn't help matters.
To that end, the Chargers could pursue one of the game's brightest stars to run their offense this offseason: six-time champion Tom Brady. Brady, who has spent his entire NFL career with the New England Patriots, will become an unrestricted free agent in March. Los Angeles will have a chance to pitch him this offseason, and the team's talented supporting cast could convince the future Hall of Famer to take his talents to Hollywood.
In the interim, the Chargers face several important decisions on impending free agents of their own. With more than $49 million in cap space and the franchise tag available, the front office should have the resources to retain any player they desire. Whether Los Angeles chooses to toss its money around now rather than save for future expenditures such as Joey Bosa's expected extension remains uncertain.
2019 season in review
Though the Chargers didn't know it at the time, the 2019 season proved to be Rivers' swan song. The longtime starting quarterback regressed mightily from his dominant 2018 form, committing 23 turnovers and contributing to the team's 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. During one particularly difficult two-game stretch, Rivers tossed seven interceptions and could have easily had more if not for defensive penalties. The team nearly benched him for backup Tyrod Taylor in early December, though Rivers managed to finish out the year as the starter.
While Rivers' struggles became the dominant narrative in Los Angeles, other issues boiled under the surface. Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon held out the entire offseason and into late September in hopes of securing a multiyear extension. When no such agreement emerged, he returned in late September, spending the rest of the season splitting the workload with breakout star Austin Ekeler.
The Chargers dealt with other absences besides Gordon, however. All-Pro defensive back Derwin James suffered a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during training camp while Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung dealt with a pulmonary embolism in June that threatened his life and kept him off the field until the middle of the season. Center Mike Pouncey (neck), safety Adrian Phillips (arm), and defensive end Melvin Ingram (hamstring) also missed significant time.
With so many issues with which to contend, the Chargers fell well short of expectation, finishing with a 5-11 record. Though the season did not cost Lynn his job, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt received his walking papers in late October.
2020 draft position
The Chargers enter the offseason with the No. 6 overall pick, just their third top-10 selection over the past 15 years. The early draft choice opens up myriad options for the team, which has holes to fill along the offensive line, in the linebacking corps, and at quarterback. Though reigning Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow appears a near lock to come off the board with the top pick, Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon's Justin Herbert could become the heir apparent to Rivers in Los Angeles. Alternatively, the Chargers could use their draft capital to secure one of the draft's top defenders -- perhaps Clemson's Isaiah Simmons -- or one of several high-end offensive linemen that could realistically start on Day 1.
Help wanted, help needed
Unless the Chargers secure a star quarterback in the free-agent market or via trade in March, they look likely to select one with one of their premium picks in the draft. If they sit tight at No. 6, they can't reasonably expect to have a shot at Burrow, and both Tagovailoa and Herbert could also hear their names called within the first five picks. While Los Angeles has not frequently traded up in the first round, the possibility of landing a blue-chip passer might force the front office to break character and relinquish some draft capital.
Five players the Chargers must watch
The presumptive top-3 quarterbacks -- Burrow, Tagovailoa, and Herbert -- each could garner significant interest from the Chargers. Burrow and Herbert each possess plus mobility and athleticism, traits that Lynn and newly minted full-time offensive coordinator Shane Steichen covet at the position. Beyond the signal-callers, Los Angeles will take a hard look at several offensive linemen projected to go in the first two rounds. Tristan Wirfs could begin his NFL career at right tackle or guard and eventually transition to left tackle when Okung eventually departs. Alternatively, if the coaching staff decides to commit more heavily to the running game, a bulldozing tackle like Alabama's Jedrick Wills Jr. could prove too enticing to pass up at No. 6.
Who makes "the call" on draft day, recent draft hits and misses
General manager Tom Telesco possesses the final say on the Chargers' draft picks and their 53-man roster. But while he can override others in his scouting department and the coaching staff, he doesn't believe in adding players in which the rest of the organization doesn't believe. Accordingly, Telesco will defer to Lynn at times to make certain all the key decision-makers feel invested in the personnel.
For the most part, Telesco's front office has done a solid job in the draft. Six of the Chargers' last eight drafts have produced at least one Pro Bowler, and few teams have hit on more first-round picks over that stretch. Bosa (No. 3 overall in 2016) and James (No. 17, 2018) rank among the elite at their respective positions, and Mike Williams (No. 7, 2017) has developed into a premier deep threat.
Still, Los Angeles has unfortunate misses. Of their 2019 draft class, only fourth-round linebacker Drue Tranquill became an every-week contributor as a rookie. First-round selection Jerry Tillery delivered little production last season with the team opting to leave him inactive at one point in favor of street free agent Sylvester Williams.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH