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Chargers roster needs: Who might they target in free agency and the draft?

Jim Harbaugh, left, celebrates with Michigan defensive lineman Kris Jenkins Jr.
Jim Harbaugh, left, celebrates with Michigan defensive lineman Kris Jenkins Jr. after the Wolverines’ Big Ten championship win over Iowa in December. Which Michigan players could be at the top of Harbaugh’s Chargers draft wish list?
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
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After a year of too many losses, the Chargers decidedly won the start of the offseason, their addition of Jim Harbaugh trumpeted as one of the franchise’s most significant victories.

Coming off a national championship at Michigan, Harbaugh was considered by many the No. 1 option from the start , and on Jan. 24, the Chargers announced him as their new coach, employing an iconic religious image on social media.

Harbaugh has assembled a staff of 29 assistants, including two coordinators — Greg Roman on offense and Jesse Minter on defense — also new to the organization. Ryan Ficken was retained to lead the special teams.

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Greg Roman will serve as Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator and Jesse Minter will be the Chargers’ defensive coordinator.

Feb. 8, 2024

The changes have been extensive, with the franchise also hiring a new general manager in Joe Hortiz, who has more than a quarter-century of NFL experience but never had been a full-time GM.

Now comes the business of building the roster, an endeavor that might prove trickier than landing a reigning national champion.

With the arrival of the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis, Harbaugh and the Chargers will dive headlong into a series of personnel decisions that will shape the team.

At his introductory news conference, Harbaugh set the standard, saying he wants to win multiple titles for an organization that was blown out in its only Super Bowl appearance nearly three decades ago.

Here are five areas to watch as the new bosses officially begin the latest pursuit of the Chargers’ first championship:

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Salary cap concerns

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams stands on the field before a game.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Any discussion about the roster has to begin with four names: wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams and edge rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa.

The contracts of those players devour more than half of the salary cap space, which the NFL set for next season at $255.4 million. That number came in higher by nearly $13 million than most projections, a splash of good news for teams with strained finances. Still, the Chargers are in a position where they need to make room.

New Chargers GM Joe Hortiz likes the prospect of working with Jim Harbaugh but must deal with the salary cap ahead of the NFL combine and draft.

Feb. 6, 2024

Measured in what Overthecap.com terms “effective cap space,” the Chargers need to trim $35.1 million by March 13, the start of the new league year. So they must determine what to do with Allen, Williams, Mack and Bosa, decisions that range from signing them to extensions to cutting them from the team and include every option in between.

It should be noted that Harbaugh, on multiple occasions, has expressed excitement at working with Allen. At the Pro Bowl, while explaining that he met his new coach, Allen said he expects to be a Charger in 2024.

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Top position priority

Chargers cornerback Michael Davis celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Denver Broncos in December.
Chargers cornerback Michael Davis celebrates after intercepting a pass against the Denver Broncos in December.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers have their quarterback (Justin Herbert) and their left tackle (Rashawn Slater). They’re set at one safety spot (Derwin James Jr.).

They have their punter (JK Scott) and long snapper (Josh Harris). Presumably, they also have their kicker (Cameron Dicker), though he’s a pending restricted-rights free agent.

Beyond those positions and depending on what happens with Allen, Williams, Mack and Bosa, the Chargers could add pretty much everywhere else over the next several weeks.

They have 20 unrestricted free agents and a case could be made that none of them will be re-signed.

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Any analysis about which position is most pressing would include center, tight end and running back. But all of those needs come after cornerback, where the Chargers must find someone to play outside opposite Asante Samuel Jr.

Michael Davis, a free agent, is unlikely to return, forcing the Chargers to look first at free agency. Remember, though, their cap situation will impact their ability to spend.

After some elite options at the top, the upcoming free-agent cornerback class includes the likes of Chidobe Awuzie and Adoree’ Jackson, if the sticker price works for the Chargers.

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Muscle up front

Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton could potentially be on the Chargers' draft radar.
(Chris Seward / Associated Press)

Roman spoke last week of the desire he and Harbaugh share for balancing an offense headlined by Herbert and his gifted right arm.

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A veteran offensive coordinator, Roman has a reputation for building running attacks and now faces perhaps his stiffest challenge. The Chargers most recently had a top-10 ground game in 2007.

The foundation starts up front and in the middle, where the Chargers almost certainly will need to replace Corey Linsley, who is expected to retire because of a heart-related issue.

Jim Harbaugh showed up Thursday for his introduction as the new Chargers head coach, and the dynamics of pro football in Southern California might never be the same.

Feb. 2, 2024

The top centers in the draft include Duke’s Graham Barton, Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson and West Virginia’s Zach Frazier.

The Chargers also could look to upgrade at right tackle, where Trey Pipkins III has struggled with consistency. The draft features plenty of tackle prospects, like Alabama’s JC Latham, who lost to Harbaugh and the Wolverines last month in the national semifinals.

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Michigan men

Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates after the Wolverines' win in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1
Michigan running back Blake Corum celebrates after the Wolverines’ win in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. Could he be on Harbaugh’s draft radar?
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

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Among the qualities teams traditionally value is familiarity, roster-building almost always influenced by past relationships. So, who from Michigan could be joining the Chargers via the draft in April?

Zak Zinter is a name to remember if the new coaching regime decides to seek improvement at guard, where Zion Johnson and Jamaree Salyer both had uneven seasons.

Defensive lineman Kris Jenkins Jr. would appear to be a prime candidate as the Chargers will need to reinforce their interior up front. Jenkins’ father, Kris Sr., played 10 years in the NFL.

When new Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh talked about his similarities with the Spanos family, those connections seemed to bring him to Los Angeles.

Feb. 1, 2024

The Chargers also need depth at inside linebacker with Kenneth Murray Jr. entering free agency and Eric Kendricks a possible cap casualty. Junior Colson emerged as a sure and productive tackler for the Wolverines.

The reworked running game likely will feature multiple new backs. The free-agency departures of Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley would open an opportunity for Blake Corum, Michigan’s two-time 1,000-yard rusher.

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Brock of ages

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers runs with the ball after making a catch against Vanderbilt in October.
(George Walker IV / Associated Press)

The Chargers hold the No. 5 pick in the draft. Only once since 2004 has the franchise selected higher; in 2016, Bosa was taken at No. 3.

Would the new leadership use such a precious opportunity to add a tight end? Based on the glowing scouting reports, Georgia’s Brock Bowers indeed might be worthy of top-five status.

The Chargers haven’t had a genuine threat at the position since Hunter Henry left in free agency following Herbert’s rookie season of 2020. A player like Bowers could immediately expand the offense’s potential.

They have two more picks — Nos. 37 and 69 — among the top 70. With so many (preferably cheaper) pieces needed, trading down from No. 5 to acquire draft capital would seem to be a real possibility.

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But if the Chargers stay at No. 5, Hortiz’s first pick as a general manager could be a tight end who, on the final day of 2021, helped knock Harbaugh out of the college playoffs.

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