The 2023 Annual League Meeting is underway in Phoenix.
Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley met with reporters for 30-plus minutes Monday and covered a variety of topics.
Here are five takeaways from Staley's media availability:
1. High respect for Ekeler
The biggest topic of conversation at Staley's table unsurprisingly centered around Austin Ekeler.
The running back is entering the final year of his contract and is hoping for a new deal. The Chargers have granted him permission to seek a trade.
Staley effusively praised Ekeler's production on the field and his leadership off it Monday and said that contract issues are sometimes part of the business of the league.
"The respect for Austin from our side of things is at the highest it can be for a player. Since I've become a head coach, just a pillar of our offense, one of the team leaders so I think our respect for him is high," Staley said. "I know that the position that he's in, we're certainly respectful of and I think there's been great communication with his team and so we're understanding of that position. We're going to go through this process.
"I know that [Chargers General Manager] Tom [Telesco] and I want him to be a part of our football team," Staley added. "We see him as someone who's going to help us win a world championship, but we're also respectful of the position he's in within his career and what he's looking for, too. We're going to be patient, but we love Austin Ekeler."
In the two years Ekeler has played for Staley, he's scored 38 total touchdowns and has amassed nearly 3,200 yards from scrimmage. Ekeler, who is also a team captain, turns 28 years old in May.
Staley explained the motivation to allow Ekeler and his camp to find a trade partner.
"I just think these situations happen at different points in players careers," Staley said. "And when it happens, you just communicate fully, you listen to their team, they listen to us.
"Again, this is part of the business of the NFL, so to me, it's not a big deal, it's part of it. As long as the respect factor is high on both sides, there will be a good conclusion," Staley added. "When that is I don't know, but I know the way we feel about him, to me that's what's most important is the way we feel about him."
Staley also noted the Bolts are always looking to upgrade their entire roster, no matter the position. The Chargers have Joshua Keller and Isaiah Spiller in the running back room along with Ekeler.
Staley was asked if he's thought of a scenario where Ekeler is not in powder blue next season.
"I mean I haven't thought that far ahead," Staley said. "He's under contract for us, and I know what we've accomplished together.
"That's where my focus is, 'Hey, we've had two really special years together, we had a vision for this guy'. He's certainly done his part, he's lived up to everything that we could've hoped for," Staley added. "And I think we've lived up to what we said we would do for him, too. That's why I say the respect factor is high and we'll see where it goes."
2. The addition of Kendricks
The Chargers essentially swapped out starting middle linebackers this offseason, as they brought in Eric Kendricks via free agency as Drue Tranquill landed with the Chiefs.
Staley said the decisions were made not so much because of Tranquill, but because Kendricks became available when he was released by the Vikings.
"It was more about the opportunity to onboard Eric Kendricks," Staley said. "Very appreciative for Drue. I thought Drue played really well for us, and I wish him a lot of luck in Kansas City.
"It's the tough part of this position, is seeing people that you care about, see people who played for you move on," Staley added. "But, I think this is more about the opportunity to add what we feel like is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, a guy that I know a lot about, a guy that really fits where we're trying to go defensively. I feel like he can bring a lot to our defense in the middle of it."
Kendricks is a former All-Pro and Pro Bowler who has 900-plus career tackles and has been an elite player against both the run and the pass.
Staley described what kind of pedigree Kendricks will bring to the Bolts.
"He's one of the most complete linebackers in the last decade," Staley said. "You're talking about five to seven players that are as complete as a linebacker as he is. His instincts, his key diagnose, his ability to communicate, that energy in the middle, a true commander.
"Tackling machine sideline to sideline, in the box, physicality. He's one of the best passing game linebackers in the last decade," Staley added. "He comes from a pattern-match scheme in Mike Zimmer, which is how we play, so the scheme transition is seamless."
Plus, Staley noted, it helps that Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken and linebackers coach Jeff Howard know him from Minnesota. New Cardinals Head Coach Jonathan Gannon, one of Staley's best friends, was also around Kendricks with the Vikings.
"We just feel like this guy has a lot of the stuff that championship defenses are made of," Staley said. "I'm really, really excited to team up with him."
A final note: Staley said a decision hasn't been made on whether or not Kendricks will wear the green dot to call defensive plays but add that is a "natural" part of his game.
3. Thoughts on the 21st pick
The 2023 NFL Draft is exactly one month away, as the first round will take place on April 27.
The Chargers are currently slated to pick 21st overall and have seven current picks in their pocket.
Staley was asked if there were any positions the Chargers had in mind in the back half of the first round but said picking at No. 21 gives the team great flexibility depending on how the draft shakes out.
And with four quarterbacks likely going in the first half of the night, that will likely push strong non-quarterback prospects down the list.
"This draft, to me, where we're picking is wide open," Staley said. "Certainly with where the quarterbacks are going and how many will go, will certainly push everybody back a little bit.
"Kind of like last year, the board opened up for us at 17. But hopefully we're picking in the late 20s for a long time … [in the] 30s … we just want to board to open up because it creates more options for you," Staley added. "I think this draft, sort of later in the first round or early second round, there will be a lot of good players to draft. I know Tom and I feel that way about this draft."
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4. Clarity on some offensive spots
The conversation with Staley mostly centered around offense. And he's well-aware, despite having a defensive coaching background in the NFL, where the league is trending.
"It's a scoring league … you have to be able to score the ball to win," Staley said.
With offense in mind, he provided some clarity on some key spots on that unit, beginning with the offensive line.
The Chargers brought back right tackle Trey Pipkins III and released guard Matt Feiler, which means Jamaree Salyer is now in line to transition to guard this season. He played 14 games as a rookie at left tackle in 2022 after a biceps injury to Rashawn Slater.
"I think that's his natural position," Staley said of Salyer at guard. "But as he proved last year, we know that Jamaree can play outside, but we kind of feel like he's best suited to play inside. A lot of strengths as a player fit better inside.
"To have him, Zion [Johnson] and Corey [Linsley] in the middle of your pocket, that's certainly what you want to design from an offensive line standpoint," Staley added. "When you have that type of anchor in the middle, athleticism and then when your tackles are athletic like Trey and Rashawn [Slater] are, they have the range and the athleticism to kick to these rushers.
"We like where we're at right now, I feel like the investment in our drafts my first two years … the belief system in investing in our offensive line is really paying off," Staley added. "I'm really proud of where we're at right now."
As for the quarterback that offensive line will protect, the big question around Justin Herbert remains his potential contract extension, which he is now eligible for.
Staley was asked about Herbert at the jump and also commented on whether or not that could did done by training camp.
"I think those talks are ongoing, I think we're at the beginning of all of that, but we all know how we feel about him," Staley said. "I think navigating this process we have a really good relationship with his team and I'm confident Justin Herbert's going to be our quarterback for a long time and that we'll make sure that we get a great deal done.
"These contracts are really complex. You're talking about a lot of different things and there's other quarterbacks certainly that are going through the same thing right now," Staley added on a possible timeline. "Just be patient, but the major takeaway is Justin Herbert is going to be our quarterback and we're so excited that he's leading our franchise."
Herbert's backup for 2023, by the way, looks like it will be Easton Stick, whom the team re-signed earlier this month.
"As of right now, yeah. We're glad that we have Easton Stick back," Staley said. "You guys may not have seen him play, but we've seen him play. We believe in Easton Stick. My first two years here, he's gotten better and better.
"Part of being a young quarterback is that developmental process, getting a chance to improve, and that's what he's done for two years," Staley added. "He's a great fit for how we want to play … and he and Justin have a really good relationship and it's a really good quarterback environment with those two."
5. Jackson and an 'energizing' offseason
Here are two other key tidbits Staley talked about in Phoenix.
First, he provided another small update on cornerback J.C. Jackson, who suffered a torn patella tendon in Week 7.
"No timeline," Staley said. "He's at the facility, just kind of same as. Improving. It's good to see him on a day-to-day basis."
Staley noted the team will have a better update on Jackson later this spring, and was then asked about how he feels about Jackson's on-field play in his first season with the Chargers.
"What we've tried to do is look at training camp, that's when our purest evaluation of J.C. Jackson occurred," Staley said. "And we love J.C. Jackson. We have a lot of belief in this guy as a player. He showed us exactly why we went out and signed him."
Finally, Staley was asked how he attacked the offseason after a bitter playoff loss to Jacksonville.
He used the word "energizing" to describe his mindset while provided some insight into it.
"You have to get moving," Staley said. "We go out and hire Kellen Moore … some new coaches on defense.
"You get going looking at the free agency period and the headed toward the draft," Staley continued. "That's what gets you past a tough loss like that.
"But … walking across that field at the end of the game, you're so confident where you're headed," Staley added. "As crushing as it was, you know the type of locker room you have and you know the work that needs to be done for that result to be different."
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