PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Looking for the hottest trend in NFL circles? Try ... teams taking advantage of their young-but-elite quarterback's still relatively manageable rookie contract.
"It's not just enough to outscore people in this league," Chargers coach Brandon Staley said at last week's NFL owners' meetings. "You've got to win in a lot of different ways in this league. It's not just surrounding [Herbert] with offensive weapons; it's surrounding him with a complete team, where the pressure isn't on him every single game to score 35 [points], to throw for 350 [yards], you know, to bring you back. And I think that's what we're trying to do is surround Justin and all of our players with a complete team."
And you have to be able to afford said pieces, right?
So with Herbert, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2020 draft, entering Year 3 of his four-year, $26.5-plus million contract, the Chargers were able to go after big names with just-as-big price tags. And primarily on the defensive side of the ball.
First, the Chargers acquired edge rusher Khalil Mack from the Chicago Bears for a second-round pick in this year's draft and a sixth-rounder in 2023. The deal was agreed to March 10 and made official on March 16, the first day of the new league year. Mack has been an All-Pro performer in eight seasons with the Raiders and the Bears, registering six sacks in seven games last season and a career-high 12.5 in 2018 in Chicago when Staley was his outside linebackers coach.
"That's going to be a fun guy to play with," Mack said of Herbert. "He has a lot of different intangibles. Not just from a football aspect, but just the mindset. Just watching that mindset from afar, I've kind of admired it. I admire his mindset more so than his play."
Los Angeles converted $13.5 million of Mack's salary into a bonus and created $9 million in salary cap space, setting the stage for the rest of the week.
Because on March 14, the Chargers got defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day to change SoFi Stadium locker rooms, convincing the former Los Angeles Rams nose tackle to agree to a three-year, $24 million free-agent contract with $15 million guaranteed. Joseph-Day had three sacks in seven games last season before suffering a torn pectoral in early November, though he returned for the Rams' Super Bowl LVI triumph.
And a day after that, the Chargers reached a deal to sign cornerback J.C. Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $40 million guaranteed, as well as defensive lineman Austin Johnson to a two-year, $14 million contract with $10.625 million guaranteed. Jackson has a league-best 25 interceptions since entering the league in 2018 and his eight interceptions in 2021 were one more than the Chargers had as a team.
"Football," Herbert said last season, "is a three-phase game."
Even if the Chargers were defense-heavy in free agency ... ostensibly to help Herbert. And without Herbert's still-affordable contract, it probably wouldn't have been possible.
Especially not in an AFC West that saw the Denver Broncos land quarterback Russell Wilson, the Las Vegas Raiders acquire receiver Davante Adams and the six-time defending division champion Kansas City Chiefs trade away receiver Tyreek Hill but sign JuJu Smith-Schuster.
"I think what you're seeing right now is competition in the NFL," Staley said. "I think it's amazing for the NFL. You're seeing all these teams make these types of moves and I think that's what the NFL represents is, 'Hey, you better be working to make your team as good as you can be or you're going to get left behind.'"