COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers set their free-agent sights on the biggest quarterback prize this offseason and didn’t land him.
But even though it won’t be Tom Brady leading the Bolts out of the tunnel at newly opened SoFi Stadium next season, the Chargers have a promising future following an aggressive approach to free agency.
Nine-year veteran Tyrod Taylor is a viable option at quarterback, and the Chargers own the sixth overall pick in next month’s NFL draft, which could afford them the opportunity to select Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert or possibly Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
“We’re just looking for a quarterback that we can win with,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said last month at the NFL scouting combine.
While the question of who will start at quarterback remains unanswered, one thing is certain: The quarterback who succeeds Philip Rivers, who signed a one-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts after 16 seasons with the Chargers, will benefit from a roster that was retooled during free agency and now includes sturdy reinforcements on offense and defense.
The Chargers invested in breakout running back Austin Ekeler, signing the fourth-year pro to a four-year, $24.5 million contract. Last season, Ekeler rushed for 557 yards and three touchdowns and caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns. His extension is expected to account for the loss of running back Melvin Gordon, who signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Denver Broncos.
The Chargers placed the franchise tag on tight end Hunter Henry at a cost of $10.6 million, which affords the two sides time to negotiate a long-term extension. The trio of Henry and receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen will provide sure-handed targets.
And the Bolts strengthened their offensive line, which was an inconsistent and injured group throughout a disappointing 5-11 season. They added offensive guard Trai Turner, whom they acquired from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for left tackle Russell Okung, and signed former Green Bay Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a three-year, $30 million deal in free agency.
The additions of Turner and Bulaga and the expected return of center Mike Pouncey — sidelined since Week 5 of last season because of a neck injury — should provide added protection for Taylor or a rookie quarterback.
On defense, the Chargers made an aggressive move to sign cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a two-year, $17 million deal. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Harris immediately elevates an already-strong Chargers secondary — which includes cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Desmond King and safety Derwin James.
The Chargers also signed veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph to a two-year, $17 million deal and added linebacker Nick Vigil on a one-year deal. Joseph and Vigil replace veterans Brandon Mebane and Thomas Davis, who were released before free agency to clear salary-cap space.
The Chargers seem poised to make a playoff run after finishing last in the AFC West in 2019, but it comes down to who takes over at quarterback.
But the Chargers have expressed confidence in Taylor, whom they signed to a two-year, $11 million contract last March to back up Rivers.
“We’re very confident with him,” Telesco said last month. “He’s been in [coach Anthony Lynn’s] offense before, and like I also said, we’ll probably look at the whole wide lens of where we are, free agency, draft, and kind of see what shakes out. But I like where we are with Tyrod, as well.”
A sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech in 2011, the Chargers acquired Taylor after his disappointing one-year stint with the Cleveland Browns in 2018. Taylor was named the Browns starter to begin the season but lost his job three games in after suffering a concussion, which allowed rookie Baker Mayfield to take over.
Prior to his one season in Cleveland, Taylor proved he was a viable starter with the Buffalo Bills. Taylor went 22-20 over three seasons, passing for 8,857 yards and 51 touchdowns, with 16 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns on 283 carries.
Telesco acknowledged, given how Taylor’s skill set differs from Rivers, that the offense might need to adapt.
“The style would probably change a little bit,” Telesco said. “I love his makeup and intangibles, which I talked about for a quarterback is A1. … He’s got plenty of arm strength. He’s got great feet and mobility.”
But drafting a quarterback in the first round seems like the most viable path for the Chargers as they look for a long-term replacement for Rivers.
Several mock drafts have projected the Chargers selecting Herbert or Tagovailoa. Both have the potential to play immediately or spend their rookie season learning from Taylor, who will turn 31 in August.
“A lot of attributes that Philip Rivers had,” Telesco said, when asked what he was looking for if he were to draft a young quarterback. “You want that intangible part, too. It’s very important for the quarterback to be able to lead, to have work ethic, preparation skills, handle adversity — all of those skills.”
Tagovailoa, who suffered a season-ending hip injury last November, recently posted workout videos on social media that demonstrate a return to health as he prepares for the draft.
However, it remains unlikely that Tagovailoa will be available with the sixth pick.
Which means, without a trade up, that Herbert, who led Oregon to a Rose Bowl victory as a senior, would be the more likely selection.