AFC West: San Diego Chargers

Dwight FreeneyAP Photo/Paul SpinelliAfter missing most of last season, Dwight Freeney is preparing for a return to action in 2014.
SAN DIEGO -- The defensive backfield of the San Diego Chargers rightfully received criticism for its uneven play last season.

But the defense’s inability to create consistent pressure on the quarterback also deserved scrutiny.

Edge rusher Dwight Freeney's focus is on changing that outcome in the upcoming season.

The former Indianapolis Colt and seven-time Pro Bowler says he is healthy heading into the beginning of San Diego's offseason workout regimen, which begins Tuesday.

Freeney, 34, believes this is the most important offseason of his 13-year professional career. And while he plans on taking a methodical approach to getting back on the field, Freeney said he'll be ready for San Diego’s season opener.

"It's the most important offseason because it's the next offseason," Freeney said. "Obviously, I want to keep improving. It's going to be a gradual thing. The main thing is to be ready for the first game of the year.

"There's no reason to rush. You have to give your body rest and work yourself into game shape. The doctors have said that I've healed completely. So now it's all about getting my strength back."

Even though he's a bit long in the tooth, the Chargers believe that Freeney still has some gas left in the tank. Freeney said he took notice this offseason when three of the top six active leaders in sacks switched teams -- with DeMarcus Ware moving to Denver, Jared Allen signing with Chicago and Julius Peppers with Green Bay.

The 30-something pass-rushers did not sign the type of high-dollar contracts they once commanded in their primes. However, each player joined a team that believes it can win now.

Freeney is in a similar situation as that trio. No. 6 on the active list in sacks with 108, Freeney agreed to a contract restructure that will pay him less money to stay with the Chargers, making a total of $2.5 million in total compensation in the final year of a two-year deal.

"It's really interesting seeing some of the elite older guys moving around," Freeney said. "It just tells us that it's a young man's game. We all understand it. We all get it. We might not like it, but that's what it is.

"We're still performing. We're still playing well. But teams don’t want to pay that type of money for the age. But we still have value. For teams that want to win now, that's what's happening."

The Chargers, who finished eight quarters away from a Super Bowl last season, believe they are one of those teams.

In 2013, Freeney finished with just two tackles and half a sack before suffering a torn quad that required surgery in a Week 4 contest against Dallas, effectively ending his first season in a Chargers uniform.

The Chargers and Freeney are in a bit of a drought when it comes to sacks. Freeney hasn’t finished with double-digit sacks since totaling 10 in 2010.

San Diego has not had a player finish with double-digit sacks since Antwan Barnes totaled 11 in 2011. The Chargers have been in the bottom third of the league in sacks for two of the past three seasons, including tied for 23rd last year with 35.

Freeney doesn’t put much stock in sack totals.

"I've always said in my career that numbers are just a product of whatever is happening at the time," Freeney said. "You can make a lot of plays in one year from a statistical standpoint, and it could have nothing to do with how good you played.

"It can depend on the coverage, or if the quarterback is holding onto the ball too long. There’s always different things that are happening where statistics don't tell you the entire story. So double-digit sacks are always a good thing to have, but ultimately I want to contribute to the team winning."

The oldest player in his position group, part of Freeney's role will be to serve as mentor for up-and-coming pass-rushers such as Melvin Ingram. Freeney was signed in May of last year to help replace Ingram after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during offseason training.

Ingram returned sooner than expected at the end of the 2013 season. Freeney said he's looking forward to playing with Ingram.

"It's going to be fun," Freeney said. "He has a lot of energy and plays with the right attitude. I've been in the league a while and have learned some things and tricks, and I think I can help him out. And I'm more than willing to share."

Freeney can look to someone such as John Abraham for inspiration. Released by the Atlanta Falcons last year, the active leader in sacks signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with Arizona. The 35-year-old Abraham showed his worth, finishing with 11.5 sacks in 2013 and helping to anchor an Arizona defense that led the Cardinals to a surprising 10-6 campaign.

In terms of team success, the Chargers can look to how effectively the Seattle Seahawks generated pressure against Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl for a blueprint on how to create more pass rush in the upcoming season.

The Seahawks played pass-rushers in waves. Seattle's top edge rushers, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, played an average of 55 percent of the team's snaps during the 2013 regular season. In his first three games for San Diego before suffering a quad injury, Freeney played 74 percent of the defensive snaps.

So the Chargers could benefit from limiting Freeney's snaps to make him more productive.

"The more depth you have, the better pass rush you can create as a team," Freeney said. "The more people that you have that can do what you can do, that keeps you from being out there so that you're not wearing yourself out. I think that's the big thing. From a hockey perspective, you keeping changing those lines and keeping rotating guys to keep those lines fresh."
Speed and playmaking ability on both sides of the ball -- major areas of need for the San Diego Chargers -- are addressed in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's fourth 2014 mock draft, available today on ESPN Insider.

With the Chargers selecting No. 25 overall and No. 57 in the second round, Kiper pegs two playmakers with speed to burn for San Diego in his two-round mock draft 4.0.

 

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In this series we take a look at 12 players for the San Diego Chargers who are 25 or younger and who could be considered foundational or impact players.

Player: ILB Donald Butler
Age: 25

Butler
The skinny: A third-round selection by the Chargers in the 2010 draft, Butler signed a seven-year, $51.8 million deal as the team's top priority this offseason. San Diego's defensive co-captain finished second on the team with 84 tackles, four pass breakups, an interception and half a sack during the regular season. Butler missed time for a second straight season, sitting out four games with a groin injury.

Reason for optimism: At 6-1 and 242 pounds, Butler is fast (4.62-second, 40-yard time at his pro day) and strong (35 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds). The University of Washington product also has a nose for the football and has the potential to develop into the long-term leader for defensive coordinator John Pagano's unit. But Butler has to perform in 2014 and beyond as he did in the postseason, when he led the Chargers in tackles with 18 and also forced a fumble.

Reason for concern: Can Butler finally stay healthy and develop into a playmaker on defense? After he signed the long-term deal, Butler said as much, stating that improving his durability was a priority during the offseason. Butler missed 24 of a possible 64 games in his four-year career with the Chargers, including four games each in the 2012 and 2013 seasons because of a similar groin injury. Butler has not always played at a high level week in, week out. He needs to perform as he did during the 2013 playoffs on a more consistent basis.
The San Diego Chargers hold the No. 25 overall selection in this year’s draft, and still have holes to fill at receiver, interior offensive line, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback.

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay’s fourth 2014 NFL mock draft Insider is available at ESPN Insider, and his selection for the Chargers is somewhat of a surprise.


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Mark Fabiani, special counsel to San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos, and the point person for the team’s effort to secure a new stadium, provided an update on the team’s stadium effort in an interview with Dan Sileo of The Mighty 1090 AM radio station on Tuesday.

You can listen to the conversation here.

Fabiani confirmed an earlier report by U-T San Diego that representatives from the Chargers will hold their first face-to-face meeting with staff members from San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer's office on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeQualcomm Stadium parking lot
AP Photo/Ric TapiaThe Chargers, who play at Qualcomm Stadium, hope to build a football-only facility in downtown San Diego, to the east of Petco Park.
Fabiani described the upcoming meeting as more of an information-gathering session, and emphasized that the sides have been having regular conversations since Faulconer took office on March 3.

“It’s nothing monumental,” Fabiani said. “It’s the process that will continue as we discuss alternatives. What we really hope -- and I think it’s what all of us hope for the city -- is that this mayor stays around for a while. We’ve had seven mayors here in the last 10 years, and we’ve never been able to gather any momentum.”

The Chargers propose to build a football-only facility downtown, to the east of Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres), that could seat as many as 70,000 for Super Bowls. The cost is projected to be from $800 million to $900 million.

Funding for the stadium would include contributions from the Spanos family and the NFL, along with selling and developing 166 acres of city-owned property that Qualcomm Stadium sits on, and another 100 acres of city-owned property that houses the San Diego Sports Arena, for the city's contribution.

Selling off the parcels of land could generate the city's financial contribution to the project without raising taxes, while creating new tax revenue from the development of the land.

Although a downtown location is preferred, Fabiani said the team is open to considering other locations for the project, including the Qualcomm Stadium site.

“We’ve gone into these discussions with the new mayor with a completely open mind,” Fabiani said. “In other words, if there’s a solution we haven’t thought of in the last 12 years, we are very willing to consider it. We don’t have any preconceptions. Obviously, having worked on it for 12 years, we feel like we know a lot about the options.

“But if we could find something that worked downtown, there would be a lot going for that. If we could find something that worked at the Qualcomm site, I think we would be happy with that, too. Our view is we’re open-minded, and we’re willing to consider all ideas.”

That said, Fabiani detailed the attraction of being located downtown next to Petco Park.

“One of the real attractions to downtown is the ability to create a sports and entertainment district that would really be unrivaled in this country,” Fabiani said. “I mean, you look at Staples Center in Los Angeles and L.A. Live, and what they’ve been able to do just with one arena there, creating a real vibrant part of downtown. Imagine if you had the convention center, the football stadium and the baseball park all within one another. ... It would be one of the great locations in the country to come have fun and see an entertainment event. It would be fantastic.”

The Chargers could seek a citywide special election as early as June 2015 for approval of a replacement for Qualcomm, which was built in 1967. However, Fabiani acknowledged a more realistic time frame for voters to weigh in on the project could be February 2016 in a less costly presidential primary.

“We’ve always said that whatever happens has to be voted on by the people,” Fabiani said. “That this should not be something that gets negotiated somewhere else and gets forced on the people. The people should have a right to vote for it. Now when that vote happens, that’s an open question.

“I know that next year, 2015, has been talked about. We’ve talked about it. The problem is that would be a special election, and that means it would be a low-turnout election. You wouldn’t get the same high number of voters that you would in a governors’ race or presidential race. And that’s really not good for a program like we’re proposing, an ambitious construction project like this.”

Fabiani said the team would like to structure the ballot measure so voters throughout San Diego County can weigh in on the project.

Fabiani also confirmed that the main goal for the Spanos family remains keeping the Chargers in San Diego.

“Just look at what they’ve done in the last 12 years -- the amount of money they’ve spent and the amount of aggravation they’ve gone through and the frustration we’ve all experienced,” Fabiani said. “But they’ve stuck with it.

“Again, ultimately this is a business. This is a team that people expect to succeed. They expect us to put the best players on the field. They expect us to spend up to the salary cap every year. And ultimately you have to protect the economics of your business. But Dean [Spanos] and his family have shown tremendous commitment to San Diego, and tremendous commitment to get this done.”
This week’s examination of the top positional needs on the San Diego Chargers' roster continues with ESPN NFL insider Matt Williamson taking a closer look at the cornerback group.

Fourth-year pro Shareece Wright emerged as a solid player in his first full season as a starter, but San Diego needs to find the long-term answer at the opposite corner position. Ineffective starter Derek Cox was released during the offseason, and signed a one-year, prove-it deal with Minnesota.

Wright
Marshall
Richard Marshall was solid for most part as Cox’s replacement, and returns to San Diego for the upcoming season as the projected starter on a one-year deal. But Marshall turns 30 in December.

Chargers cornerback depth: Starters -- LCB Marshall, RCB Wright. Reserves -- Brandon Ghee, Crezdon Butler, Marcus Cromartie, Steve Williams, Brandon Jones

What’s your evaluation of San Diego’s talent level at cornerback?

Williamson: “They don’t seem to put a premium at the position because they don’t ask them to mirror guys across the field like Deion Sanders,” Williamson said.

Williamson likes Ghee’s potential, but has concerns with his injury history. Like a lot of San Diego’s positions on defense, Williamson says the Chargers need to improve the overall depth and talent level at cornerback.

“I do think an advanced pass rush certainly would help,” Williamson said. “Dwight Freeney still has something in the tank. And I’m high on Melvin Ingram.

“It is a need. I’m not sure I could come up with six or seven teams that are worse off at corner right now than San Diego.”

What do they need to accomplish this offseason to improve?

Williamson: Perhaps not in the first round, but in the first couple rounds Williamson believes the Chargers need to select a cornerback who can come in and play right away.

He mentions Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and TCU’s Jason Verrett as cornerback possibilities at the end of the first round.

“I kind of look at the Chargers and think in Round 1, take the best defensive player or receiver, or guard in Round 1,” Williamson said. “Take whoever is your best guy, and do not say ‘We have to take a corner’ there. And fill the other spots pretty quickly.”
Many observers believe the San Diego Chargers will draft a wide receiver in an early round this year in the hope of finding a player who can complement last year’s rookie receiver, Keenan Allen.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has other ideas.


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With the Philadelphia Eagles releasing DeSean Jackson on Friday, speculation erupted on potential landing spots for the talented receiver.

Jackson
NFL nation weighed in, with reporters for all 32 teams providing their opinion on the possibility of Jackson, 27, landing with the team they cover.

From a scale of low to high interest, I rated the San Diego Chargers’ level of interest in Jackson at a medium. The Chargers are in need of a playmaking receiver who can also help in the return game, so Jackson’s a fit in terms of a skill set.

He has some familiarity with fellow Cal receiver Keenan Allen, and would be close to his native Los Angeles by joining the Chargers. But ultimately I do not see Jackson signing with the Chargers for a couple of different reasons.

Too risky: Whether or not you believe the report by NJ.com of Jackson’s alleged gang ties, any NFL front office has to perform their due diligence to make sure the player is a good fit in the locker room and with the organization. Jackson vehemently denied he has gang affiliations in a statement released on Friday. General manager Tom Telesco, along with the Chargers organization, is pretty conservative in their approach to player acquisition and what types of people they sign. I would be surprised if Telesco is willing to take a leap of faith on Jackson, having no personnel relationship with the player. Teams like Kansas City and the New York Jets, who have coaches that have worked with Jackson in the NFL, make more sense.

Too expensive: Jackson likely will command between $6-7 million a year to secure his services – and I don’t think the Chargers want to spend that much on a veteran receiver. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers have $3.7 million in salary-cap space. The team still has to sign draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents, along with leaving enough money to sign guys during the regular season to replace players placed on the injured reserve. I’m skeptical the team is willing to do a deal that pushes money into future years for Jackson.

Look to the draft: This year’s draft class is deep and talented at receiver. And while you might not get someone as talented as Jackson, the Chargers still can find a player with a similar skill set. And that player will be inexpensive and under team control in terms of contract for a longer period. Players like Wyoming’s Robert Herron or South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington can be drafted in the middle rounds and are talented enough to help the Chargers immediately. Telesco plucking Allen in the third round last year is an example of the GM's ability to evaluate receivers in the draft that fit San Diego’s offensive system.


If you believed the reclamation of Philip Rivers by San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy was a short-term stint while the team found a long-term answer at the position, think again.

Rivers
In a conversation with ESPN's John Keim at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week, McCoy reaffirmed that Rivers remains the team's franchise quarterback for the long haul.

Further, McCoy believes Rivers' improved performance is not an aberration.

"He should start off where he finished and have the type of year he had last year," McCoy said. "Our team will only improve. There were a lot of first times for our team also, in a new system. There's things you're learning -- you practice things all the time but they may not be against a certain coverage.

"He was learning as we were going during the year. As time goes along you put in a new play, maybe it's a play out of a new formation, or someone else is running it, Ladarius [Green] is running it versus one of the receivers. You're still learning about one another and your system every week.

"We said the first day sitting here last year [that] Philip Rivers was not the problem. It was everyone else around him playing better. He'll be the first one to tell you also that he needed to play better. He couldn't make certain decisions he made. That's the quarterback position. You'll throw interceptions sometimes. He's going to make more good decisions than bad decisions."

McCoy said even with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt moving on and taking the head coaching job in Tennessee, he still expects Rivers to have similar success under new offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

"The system's in place," McCoy said. "We put a system in place last year to be there for the long haul, and we all sat down and there were good offensive minds in there and there are still some good offensive minds in there. We knew this could happen at this point in time that Ken could leave. But that's what happens in this profession. We have a great staff in place. We added [tight ends coach] Pete Metzelaars and he will be great for the offense also. We built the system for the long haul."
For a second straight season, the San Diego Chargers were not awarded a compensatory pick for the 2014 NFL draft.

The NFL announced that 13 teams received a total of 32 compensatory selections for the draft.

Check out the details here.

According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than acquired in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks.

Usually, the number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four.

San Diego has had 18 compensatory picks since 1994, the first year the NFL began awarding compensatory selections.

So the Chargers will have seven picks in the upcoming draft -- one in each round. Here’s the full list.

First round (1) -- No. 25 overall
Second round (1) – No. 57 overall
Third round (1) – No. 89 overall
Fourth round (1) – No. 25
Fifth round (1) – No. 25
Sixth round (1) – No. 25
Seventh round (1) – No. 25

Here’s a list of San Diego’s compensatory selections since 2004. Only one player, linebacker Andrew Gachkar, remains with the team.

2012 – RB Edwin Baker
2011 – OL Stephen Schilling, LB Andrew Gachkar
2010 – QB Jonathan Crompton
2007 – LB Anthony Waters
2004 – OL Carlos Joseph
Drafted as a developmental prospect last season, receiver Keenan Allen topped the San Diego Chargers' list for performance-based pay in 2013.

Allen added $218,153 to his a little over $1 million in total compensation in 2013. Following Allen on the list for the Chargers were safety Jahleel Addae ($196,582), an undrafted rookie free agent considered a long shot to make the final roster last season; offensive lineman Johnnie Troutman ($187,085); cornerback Richard Marshall ($181,694); and receiver Vincent Brown ($160,243).

Check out the full list for every NFL team here.

Established in 2002 as part of the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL's performance-based pay program is a fund created and used as a supplemental form of player compensation based on a comparison of playing time to salary.

Players become eligible to receive a bonus distribution in any regular season in which they play at least one official down.

Each NFL team received $3.46 million to pay out to their players for the 2013 season. Generally, players who benefit the most from the pool of money are those that played extensively but had low salaries relative to their teammates.

Allen played in 898 offensive snaps in 2013.
Asked about the attraction of signing a two-year, $3 million deal to join the San Diego Chargers in free agency, reserve quarterback Kellen Clemens listed four reasons.

The Oregon native sought a return to the West Coast and is familiar with San Diego. Clemens' wife, Nicole, attended the University of San Diego and has family and friends in the area.

Clemens
Clemens also heard good things about the Chargers' organization from friend Danny Woodhead. Both played together with the New York Jets. Clemens was a second-round selection by the Jets in the 2006 draft.

"He's a hard worker," Clemens said about Woodhead. "He's a pro, and he understands the game. He has a high IQ. All he needed was an opportunity. And I'm excited to get another opportunity to play with him."

Location and a good locker room environment were selling points, but the clinchers for Clemens proved a chance to work with Philip Rivers and an opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl.

Clemens believes he achieved both by signing with San Diego.

"The guys in the quarterback room are people I'm going to be spending a lot of time with, so it's real important," he said. "Obviously, Philip brings a level of professionalism, toughness and maturity. And I'm excited to work with him."

Clemens said he enjoyed watching the Chargers make their surprising postseason run from afar last season.

"I like the direction the team his headed, making that playoff run and winning in the wild-card round," he said. "Going on that great run at the end of the season shows a lot."

With Charlie Whitehurst moving on in free agency to Tennessee, San Diego didn't bring Clemens in just to hold a clipboard. The 30-year-old University of Oregon product can win games if called upon.

Clemens showed that important characteristic last season. In 2013, he subbed for an injured Sam Bradford, leading the St. Louis Rams to a 4-5 record. Clemens threw for nearly 2,000 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

While some of the concepts are familiar, Clemons will be learning San Diego's offense from scratch, having just gotten the playbook this week.

"I work hard, and I think I'm a pretty good teammate," Clemons said. "I'm not going to be any problem in the locker room, that's for sure. There's a passion I have for the game that hopefully is a little contagious."

Free-agency review: Chargers

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Butler
Most significant signing: Re-signing linebacker Donald Butler as the long-term anchor for the middle of San Diego’s defense was the team’s top priority in free agency, so mission accomplished. The University of Washington product has had trouble consistently staying on the field. But with his athleticism and playmaking ability, Butler has the potential to blossom into a perennial Pro Bowl player.

Most significant loss: It might not be felt on the field, but Charlie Whitehurst leaving the Chargers in free agency to join former San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee will be felt in the quarterback room. Whitehurst is a close friend of Philip Rivers, and served as a good sounding board for the franchise quarterback in practice and in games.

Brown
Biggest surprise: Some league observers raised eyebrows over the Chargers signing Indianapolis Colts free-agent running back Donald Brown to a three-year, $10.5 million contract, including $4 million in guaranteed money. Critics of the deal surmised San Diego had enough depth at running back with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, and that money could have been better spent on more obvious needs such as cornerback or outside linebacker. However, the Chargers have morphed into an offense that leans on the running game. So if Mathews is banged up, San Diego needs a running back with a similar skill set to effectively run in between the tackles. Add to that the fact that Mathews and Woodhead are free agents at the end of 2014, and Brown offers some insurance in case either player does not return.

What’s next? As the second wave of free agency approaches, the Chargers still have holes to fill at cornerback, defensive tackle, interior offensive line and receiver. Players who could make some sense for San Diego include Denver Broncos free-agent cornerback Champ Bailey and, if released, New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
The San Diego Chargers continued a busy Thursday by announcing two more signings, bringing back linebacker Reggie Walker and signing cornerback Brandon Ghee.

Walker
Ghee
Both players signed two-year deals.

Walker was one of San Diego's most versatile players on defense in 2013, seeing time at all four linebacker positions in defensive coordinator John Pagano's 3-4 defensive front.

Walker, 27, signed with San Diego in September before the start of the regular season after being released by Arizona last May.
The Kansas State product started six games and played a total of 451 snaps defensively during the regular season, finishing with 36 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble.

Ghee, 26, played in 23 games during part of four seasons with Cincinnati, totaling 17 tackles and five pass breakups. At 6-0 and 200 pounds, Ghee was a third-round selection by the Bengals in the 2010 draft.
In his latest mock draft , ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has the San Diego Chargers selecting Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby with the No. 25 overall pick.

Roby no doubt fills a need for the Chargers, who have just one cornerback (Shareece Wright) with NFL regular-season starting experience currently on the roster. Kiper had Roby pegged for the Chargers in his first mock draft. After a so-so performance by Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson at the NFL scouting combine, Roby moves back to No. 25 for San Diego.

Kiper had Roberson going to the Chargers in his second mock draft, but the Florida product fell out of the first round in Kiper's latest mock draft.

At 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, Roby is athletic, running a 4.39-second 40-yard dash and posting a 38.5-inch vertical jump. Roby also is versatile, with the ability to play on the perimeter or match up inside against slot receivers. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano likes players who can move around the field and play different positions.

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