Popper: Salary-cap moves prove this is not a full teardown for Chargers, Jim Harbaugh


Over the past six weeks, amid the excitement of a new beginning, one question has hovered over the Los Angeles Chargers: What timeline does Jim Harbaugh want to be on as he enters his debut season as head coach?

On Wednesday, we got our first tangible evidence of an answer.

The Chargers made two salary-cap-related moves Wednesday morning ahead of the new league year. They released receiver Mike Williams. That saved the Chargers $20 million in cap space and put them in compliance with the 2024 cap. Edge rusher Khalil Mack also agreed to a restructured contract, according to The Athletic’s Dianna Russini. The specific monetary details of that restructure are still unknown, but the adjustment gave the Chargers the operating room to officially re-sign safety Alohi Gilman and sign tight end Will Dissly. The Chargers also agreed to terms with running back Gus Edwards.

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Chargers restructure Khalil Mack’s deal, release Mike Williams

Harbaugh and Hortiz faced a salary-cap crunch after they both joined the Chargers in the first week of February. Mack, Williams, receiver Keenan Allen and edge rusher Joey Bosa each had a 2024 cap hit of more than $30 million, according to Over the Cap. Together, they were accounting for well over half of the team’s 2024 cap, even after the cap jumped more than $30 million for this coming season. The Chargers were $45.8 million over the cap heading into February. They had work to do.

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There were options for how to proceed. And those options, for Harbaugh and Hortiz, fell on a spectrum. On one end, they could move on from all four high-priced veterans contracts and tear the roster down. On the other end, they could maintain that nucleus through extensions and/or restructures, kicking the salary-cap can down the road.

In the end, they are settling somewhere in the middle. Where exactly is still to be determined. Bosa remains on the roster on his current deal and cap hit — $32.97 million for 2024. Same with Keenan Allen, who has a $34.72 million cap hit in 2024. More deadlines await. According to Over the Cap, Bosa is due a $7 million bonus if he is on the roster on the third day of the league year, which is Friday. Allen is due a $5 million roster if he is on the roster on the fifth day of the league year, which is Sunday.

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Joey Bosa’s Chargers future could still be in question with him due a $7 million roster bonus on Friday. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

The Williams release and Mack restructure bought the Chargers some needed time. They have an extra day to continue shopping Bosa to try and get a return in a trade. They have into the weekend to decide on Allen’s future — though, if the Chargers are trying to clear space with Allen’s contract, an extension makes more sense for a player coming off maybe the best season of his career.

As the new league year deadline approached, the Chargers made virtually all the cap moves they could without touching the Big Four. Center Corey Linsley, who is expected to retire at some point this offseason, did the Chargers a favor by slashing $10.29 million of his non-guaranteed 2024 base salary earlier this offseason. They released linebacker Eric Kendricks, saving an additional $6.5 million. The cap jump to $255.4 million also gave the Chargers more flexibility than anticipated.

Eventually, though, they were going to have to address these contracts. Extending Williams was a potential avenue. But he is coming off a torn ACL and two subpar seasons of production. Williams turns 30 in October. The release was primarily cap related. It is also an indication that Harbaugh and Hortiz are willing to turn over the aging, pricey areas of the roster as they try to build the team in their image.

Willing, yes. But to a degree. Because they kept Mack, who turned 33 in February. This likely came down to the tape and the upside. Mack was a truly dominant player last season in all facets of playing the edge position. There is no other way to state it. His impact on games week after week was monumental, against the run and as a pass rusher. He was healthy after dealing with the lingering effects of 2021 foot surgery in his first Chargers season. As a result, Mack looked like a top-10 edge rusher in the league in 2023. The tape showed a player who can continue playing at that level. He is worth paying for. The Chargers clearly agreed with that assessment.

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We will see the financial ramifications at some point soon. Mack is on the final year of his deal, so a restructure most likely means adding void years to the end of the contract. That would allow the Chargers to convert base salary and roster bonus into a signing bonus and prorate it over multiple seasons.

If the Chargers add one void year to the contract, they would save a maximum of $10.49 million in space for 2024. If they add two void years to the contract, they would save a maximum of $14.58 million in space for 2024. If they add three void years, they would save a maximum of $16.41 million in space for 2024. If they add four void years — which is the most they can add for proration purposes — they would save a maximum of $17.5 million in space for 2024.

Remember, though: Any money the Chargers save in 2024 would be worn as a dead-money charge once the contract voids after 2024. Short-term gain equals long-term loss.

“Our goal is to build a winner every year,” Hortiz said at his introductory news conference on Feb. 6. “We want to compete to win a championship every year. That’s going to be starting now. That’s not going to be, let’s gut it and start over. (Those are) the decisions: What balance of players gives us the best opportunity to go out there and compete this year?”

Harbaugh and Hortiz have started to shift the scales to find that balance. It includes Mack. It includes Gilman, Edwards and Dissly. For now, it does not include Williams, who is free to test the open market. We will know in short order if it includes Allen and Bosa.

Still, this is not a teardown, as Hortiz foreshadowed.

In 2011, Harbaugh jumped from college to the pros. He took over a San Francisco 49ers team that went 6-10 the previous season.

In Harbaugh’s first year, they went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game.

He won coach of the year.

Said Harbaugh on the day he was introduced in L.A.: “I’m hungry to win.”

(Top photo of Khalil Mack: Ryan Kang / Getty Images)





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