COSTA MESA, Calif. – Birds chirped and Camelback Mountain sparkled in the afternoon sun.
It was a picturesque 73-degree Spring day at the Arizona Biltmore, the resort where Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco sat at a patio table fielding several questions about the state of the Chargers at the NFL Annual Meeting.
When will quarterback Justin Herbert sign an extension? No exact timetable.
Is it anticipated that running back Austin Ekeler will return despite seeking trade options? The Chargers’ hope.
What position are they targeting with 21st overall pick in the NFL draft? As of late last month, not totally dialed in.
Telesco, unable to provide many concrete answers, didn’t hesitate, however, when asked if the Bolts’ aimed to construct a roster focused on stopping two-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs or build a team that satisfies their own vision.
“You talk about both because you want to balance it,” said Telesco, entering his 11th season as general manager. “You don't want to be a team that's just building to beat one other team and forget that we got to play the way we think we need to play to win, to beat the other teams in the division and everybody else that we play.”
Playing in the second-largest media market in the shadow of Hollywood, the Chargers want to feature quarterback Justin Herbert and entertain fans on their way to winning the organization’s first Lombardi Trophy in their 63-year history.
But first things first: Conquering their division and conference.
That hurdle includes stopping Mahomes and the seven-time defending AFC West champion Chiefs.
“You like to be a little bit more on the offensive and ‘Hey, this is how we're going to play and this is how teams have to stop us,’” Telesco said, before adding some emphasis, “But you can't help but to see the Super Bowl champions in our division. We have to beat them.”
In three seasons as starting quarterback, Herbert is 2-4 against the Chiefs, however a 2020 victory in Week 17 was earned when Mahomes rested with the division title and top seed in the AFC already clinched.
Since Brandon Staley took over as Chargers coach in 2021, the Bolts have gone 1-3 against the division foe, losing each contest by one possession, while averaging 27.25 points per game and allowing 28.75.
When asked the same question as Telesco, whether to focus on stopping Mahomes or building the Chargers, Staley’s focus was on the AFC West.
“You start with your division because you play those guys six times a year, maybe more in the playoffs,” Staley said. “But I think you, you always have to look within your team, how you want your team to look.”
In two years under Staley, the Chargers have averaged 25.58 points per division matchup, while allowing 24.83.
Last offseason, the Bolts focused on bolstering their defense by trading for edge rusher Khalil Mack and signing free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson and defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and Morgan Fox.
But Staley, who navigated his way through the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball, insinuated at the annual meeting that offense would be key to victory.
“It is always going to be a scoring league,” Staley said. “You got to score the ball...
“You're seeing some of the best quarterbacks that the league's ever seen and we're seeing some of the most prolific offenses that, especially in the passing game, that the NFL's seen. And so you got to be able to score the ball.”
Case in point: The Chargers produced four turnovers and held a 27-0 lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars with 4:25 to play in the first half of a wild-card playoff, but they scored only three more points through the remainder of the game and lost, 31-30.
“It's always going to be, with the way it is now, you got to be able to score,” Staley said, referring to rule changes that have arguably favored offenses. “So that's where our focus is going to be is trying to score more than the team we're playing.”
Perhaps their most important offseason acquisition to date is offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who will be expected to evolve last season’s 10th-ranked offense into one of the best in the league.
But the Chargers also own seven picks in the draft later this month, including the 21st overall selection.
After utilizing their first-round pick the last two years to select linemen, the Bolts are anticipated to target a skill position play maker – potentially a speedy wide receiver who can stretch the field or a big tight end capable with a complete skillset.
With limited resources available under the salary cap, the Chargers this offseason already added linebacker Eric Kendricks in free agency and re-signed right tackle Trey Pipkins III, defensive lineman Morgan Fox and punter J.K. Scott.
The Chiefs are commanding the Chargers’ attention, but that won’t make them lose sight of who they want to be.
“Your team has got to be able to go anywhere, any place, any time of the year, any style of team, and you got to be able to go win,” Staley said. “So that's what we're trying to do is really focus on the Chargers.”