Keeping Hunter Henry a priority for Chargers in free agency

What locking up Austin Ekeler means for Chargers (0:53)

Alden Gonzalez breaks down the Chargers' re-signing of RB Austin Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5M deal and his importance to the team. (0:53)

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Let the retooling begin.

After a team with Super Bowl aspirations finished last season a disappointing 5-11, the Los Angeles Chargers moved on from franchise quarterback Philip Rivers, and now general manager Tom Telesco sets his sights on building a roster that can quickly return to the postseason.

With about $48 million in cap space, Telesco has enough money to make a splash in free agency (Tom Brady, anyone?) if he chooses to go that route. However, that figure does not include recently signing Austin Ekeler to a four-year, $24.5 million deal.

Diving head-first into the deep end of free agency goes against Telesco's philosophy of drafting, developing and re-signing his players. But with the Chargers moving into brand-new SoFi Stadium in 2020 and looking to build a fan base in L.A., Telesco's patience with sticking to that credo will be tested.

He already made a big move in anticipation of free agency, trading steady, 31-year-old left tackle Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers for 26-year-old Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner. That deal will not become official until the start of free agency on March 18.

Telesco would like to keep pending free agents such as tight end Hunter Henry, safety Adrian Phillips and defensive tackle Damion Square. With Ekeler signed to a long-term deal, Melvin Gordon will be allowed to hit the open market and finally establish his true value.

Telesco recently said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February that retaining Henry is a priority, and applying the franchise tag to the Arkansas product is a possibility.

Henry has been billed as the eventual replacement for future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, and he has mostly lived up to those lofty expectations when on the field. The past four seasons, Henry's 17 touchdown catches rank eighth in the league among tight ends.

Henry has had trouble staying healthy, though, missing 22 games since the Chargers selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft.

However, the Chargers love his work ethic, versatility and toughness, and they plan to keep him. The Bolts could use the franchise tag, projected at $11 million for tight ends, on Henry as a means to continue negotiations on a long-term deal.

"I've talked to Hunter," Telesco said during his end-of-the-season media conference in January. "He had a great season for us. Again, he has a higher ceiling, too. He's an excellent player for us.

"We'll figure out all the finances, the cap and the performance -- however it fits. He's a draft pick of ours. As you know, our philosophy is to re-sign our own when we can. It may not be everybody. We like to re-sign our own first and then go outside after that."

Along with Rivers, the Chargers have 14 pending unrestricted free agents, including Gordon, Henry, Phillips, Square and offensive guard Michael Schofield III.

The Chargers could also increase their cap space by moving on from aging veteran defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and oft-injured linebacker Denzel Perryman.

"We're still working through things on a team basis," Telesco said when asked about free agency. "This free agency is going to be different than other years, just because there's a possibility that if there's not a CBA extension we'll be going from a capped year in 2020 into an uncapped year in 2021. So that will affect contracts done in 2020, so that affects this year's contracts, which means different salary-cap accounting rules if there's not an extension.

"So there is more work that goes into this year's free agency because of that, which means our team needs all of these days leading up to free agency to have the best plan together that will work if those are the rules that we are under."

Telesco went on to say that the team is moving forward with parallel plans, depending on what happens with the CBA.

The Gordon situation is particularly tricky. The Wisconsin product missed training camp and the first three games of the regular season because of the contract impasse with the Chargers.

Gordon was offered a multiyear deal that would have paid him $10 million annually, but he believed he deserved a contract that paid him among the top running backs in the league, at around $13 million to $14 million annually.

Gordon finished with 612 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns in 12 games, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He added 42 catches for 296 receiving yards. He also lost three fumbles, marking the first time that he lost a fumble since 2016.

Overall, Gordon showed that he can still produce. His 35 touchdowns the past three seasons are fifth in the NFL. He has 3,864 scrimmage yards during that time frame, good for ninth in the league.

"They've always been great discussions," Telesco said of negotiations with Gordon's representatives at the combine. "His representation is doing their job, never contentious, and that's the way these things go sometimes. You try and get to a place where both people think it's going to work.

"It didn't quite get there last year during training camp, but we always had good, constructive discussions with them. We'll probably have them again here. But it is what it is right now."