With little cap room, where Chargers must be on money with NFL draft picks

He stepped to the podium Monday and immediately revealed how eager he was to embrace the 2023 season.

“It’s been 93 days since our last ballgame,” Brandon Staley said in response to the opening question of his latest news conference. “So we’re ready to get started.”

Ninety-three days — counted out exactly by the Chargers’ meticulous head coach — since his team lost a 27-0 AFC wild-card lead in Jacksonville in a dramatic, face-first tumble from the playoffs.

Since, the Chargers most notably have signed linebacker Eric Kendricks and re-signed right tackle Trey Pipkins III and defensive lineman Morgan Fox.

They’ve also released left guard Matt Feiler and will replace him with Zion Johnson, with Jamaree Salyer moving to right guard. Kendricks will take over for Drue Tranquill, who is now with Kansas City.

The roster has been only tweaked, a more significant retooling made impossible by salary cap constraints. Still, the Chargers’ front office has work to do as draft week arrives.

Five personnel questions the team faces — not counting a Justin Herbert extension that for months has felt almost inevitable:

What’s up with Austin Ekeler?

The Chargers’ No. 1 running back and the NFL’s top scorer over the last two seasons would like an extension as he enters the final year of a deal he signed in March 2020.

As he became increasingly frustrated by a lack of progress in negotiations, Ekeler last month asked for and was granted permission to seek a trade, a development that to date has generated little movement.

Particularly given the recent league-wide devaluing of running backs, the Chargers have to feel confident that the situation with Ekeler will be resolved in a manner that sees him remaining with the team.

 Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs past the Rams Cobie Durant.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs past the Rams Cobie Durant. Ekeler has been a scoring machine for the Chargers.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But the possibility of this disconnect stretching into training camp is very real, the Chargers having recent experience with players “holding in.” Melvin Ingram III did it in 2020, as did Derwin James Jr. last year.

What Ekeler needs is for the circumstances to change, which could happen if another top back in the league were to get injured, suddenly revealing a potential opportunity.

How much depth along the defensive front will be added?

The Chargers hold the No. 21 overall pick in the draft, and increasingly there’s a sense they could go defense, especially at edge rusher or tackle (with cornerback another possibility).

After Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack, the Chargers have nothing in the way of a proven pass rusher on the perimeter. The impact of Chris Rumph II, who’s still only 24, so far mostly has been felt on special teams.

Veteran Kyle Van Noy remains available in free agency after starting 13 games in 2022 after Bosa was injured.

Even with the return of Fox, the Chargers need to bolster an interior that helped permit the most yards per rushing attempt in the league a year ago.

Starter Austin Johnson and key reserve Otito Ogbonnia both are coming back from significant season-ending injuries, too, further clouding the position.

Who’s going to take over at cornerback and safety?

The Chargers’ secondary has two available starting spots that a year ago were occupied by Bryce Callahan and Nasir Adderley. Callahan, the team’s top slot corner, is still a free agent, and Adderley, the safety opposite James, retired.

(Adderley, who was set to become a free agent, was unlikely to return before deciding to step away from football.)

In-house, the options include Ja’Sir Taylor and JT Woods, a pair of 2022 draft picks Staley is hoping to mold, player development a strength upon which Staley built his coaching career.

Another possibility is Alohi Gilman, who played well in five starts at safety last season and continues to figure prominently into the team’s defensive plans.

Staley repeatedly has expressed how much he values defensive backs, something to remember as the draft kicks off Thursday.

Is a speedy wide receiver coming this week?

Since moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers have had some notably fast wideouts, including Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin and Jalen Guyton. But the fan base continues to long for a big-time, field-stretching burner.

Is this the draft where it finally happens?

With a quarterback such as Herbert, there always will be an outside call to accumulate weapons, especially when a team has to try to outscore Patrick Mahomes twice a season.

But the Chargers also have to stop Mahomes and the Kansas City offense, and last season they were unable to do so while blowing second-half leads in both meetings.

A related matter to watch in the draft: the Chargers need to replace kick returner DeAndre Carter, who left for rival Las Vegas in free agency.

Will a tight end be taken early, as in first-round early?

This draft has obvious talent at the position, especially with Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer and Utah’s Dalton Kincaid. Others include Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, Georgia’s Darnell Washington and South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft.

The national assumption has been that the Chargers will add a tight end at some point this offseason, a sentiment that only gained volume when the team hired Kellen Moore as its offensive coordinator.

At the moment, the Chargers have the same set of tight ends they had throughout 2022, led by Gerald Everett.

In his 10 years with the team, general manager Tom Telesco has drafted only two tight ends: Tre’ McKitty (third round in 2021) and Hunter Henry (second round, 2016).

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