- Eric D. Williams, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- With the NFL scouting combine a week away there’s a buzz at Chargers Park.
The San Diego Chargers' personnel department and coaching staff are gathered at the facility making final preparations for the annual look at some of the best athletes available for the draft in Indianapolis.
During that hectic process, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco carved out some time for this reporter to talk about the continued development of his team after last year’s playoff run.
The Chargers have seven picks in this year’s draft, and 11 players set to become unrestricted free agents on March 11. San Diego’s top unrestricted free agent is middle linebacker and defensive co-captain Donald Butler. The sides would like to get something done before the free agency period begins in March, and have resumed contract discussions.
San Diego could use the franchise tag designation on Butler to keep the University of Washington product from hitting free agency, but the projected franchise tag number for middle linebacker is north of $10 million. And with the Chargers tight against the salary cap heading into free agency, they likely want to get something done soon.
Teams can begin applying the franchise tag on Monday. Along with Butler, San Diego’s list of pending unrestricted free agents includes: receivers Seyi Ajirotutu, Danario Alexander and Lavelle Hawkins, running back Ronnie Brown, cornerback Richard Marshall, offensive linemen Rich Ohrnberger and Chad Rinehart, strong safety Darrell Stuckey, defensive lineman Cam Thomas, and linebacker Reggie Walker.
San Diego finished at about $120 million in salary-cap space in 2013, allowing the team to carry over about $2.3 million into the 2014 season. With a projected cap of $126.3 million, San Diego's adjusted salary cap for 2014 -- if the team carries over cap dollars -- will be between $128-$129 million, leaving little space to sign its own free agents, or free agents from other teams.
However, the Chargers can create cap space by releasing veterans like guard Jeromey Clary ($4.55 million in non-guaranteed base salary), receiver Eddie Royal ($4.5 million) and fullback Le'Ron McClain ($2.5 million), or restructuring deals for quarterback Philip Rivers or safety Eric Weddle.
Telesco did not talk specifically about the plans for the Chargers in free agency, but said it remains one of the ways his team can secure more talent to continue the roster-building process.
“It’s definitely a piece of the puzzle,” Telesco said. “I don’t think it’s ever the only answer, but it’s definitely a piece of the puzzle when you’re trying to put a team together. You’re looking for guys that fit what you run, either on offense or defense, and that fit under your salary-cap structure. And if you can hit those -- find the right player at the right place for where you are with your cap -- it’s a good move. It’s just hard to do sometimes. Sometimes you can get one or the other, but you can’t get both.
“Every year is completely different, based on how much space you have. So, really every year in free agency is really unique, but a lot of guys won’t get to free agency. They’re either re-signed by their own team, or they get tagged. So you just have to be careful. You do a lot of homework on it, and try to line up the ability to help you win and fit what you do, line it up with salary structure and see if it works for you.”
At the heart of the offseason process for the Chargers is adding impact players and keeping the team’s core group together.
Telesco said one of the attractions of the job in San Diego was that the team already had foundational pieces in place on both sides of the ball, including Rivers, running back Ryan Mathews, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and Clary on offense, and defensive linemen Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, Weddle, and Butler on defense.
“Ideally, the guys that you draft and developed for two, three or four years, you’d like to keep your core together,” Telesco said. “You’ve invested in them, and you kind of already know what you have. With the college draft, there’s a bigger pool of players to work through. And you can decide who fits you and who doesn’t. In free agency, you can have a position of need, and there’s only three or four guys available. And maybe none of them fit. In college with the draft, there’s a lot more.”