Tagging TE Hunter Henry has free agency implications for Chargers – Press Enterprise

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco stressed the importance of a healthy salary cap last month during his end-of-season news conference. As teams scramble to get under the projected 2021 salary cap, it’s becoming clear why Telesco kept pointing to the team’s cap space as one of the reasons why the Chargers are ready to ascend quickly.

The Chargers are in position to contend this season and for the foreseeable future because of young quarterback Justin Herbert and because the team’s healthy salary cap position leaves room to improve the roster. But if the Chargers decide to use the franchise tag in the coming weeks, with tight end Hunter Henry being the only logical candidate, then that salary-cap flexibility could become tight before the free agency frenzy.

Last week, the NFL announced that this year’s salary cap floor increased from $175 million to $180 million. That’s still a drastic dip from last season’s $198 million salary-cap budget. For the first time in many years, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the salary cap is expected to shrink.

With the Chargers projected to have $23.8 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com, they’re sitting pretty as other teams take on dead money and release key players to avoid being in the red when the free-agent signing period opens on March 17 for the new league year.

As of Monday, 13 teams are above the projected $180 million salary cap, according to OvertheCap.com. The New Orleans Saints are in the worst position with a negative $69.5 million in cap space. As for the Chargers’ crosstown rivals, the Rams are at a negative $33.9 million.

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The Philadelphia Eagles made history last week after taking a dead cap hit of $33.8 million to trade quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. The Rams ate $22.2 million in dead money to ship quarterback Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions. As a comparison, the Chargers owe $58,008 in dead money for the 2021 season, the only team under six figures as of Monday.

The Chargers can afford to be aggressive with trades and free agency, but that depends on what they do when the two-week window to apply the franchise tag opens Tuesday.

The Chargers used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Henry last season and paid him $10.6 million for 60 receptions, 613 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games played.

Henry, 26, didn’t have monster numbers and fell short of his goal of playing a full season in 2020, but the team captain displayed his value as a complete tight end who can block and move the chains. Henry put aside his statistical numbers to block for Herbert while the sluggish offensive line dealt with numerous injuries.

Now, the Chargers might risk allowing Henry to join another team to repair the offensive line.

The projected 2021 salary for franchise-tagged tight ends is $10.1 million, but because the Chargers already used the designation on Henry, his salary could be as high as $13 million, which would take most of the team’s cap space. The best way to prevent this issue would be for the Chargers and Henry to agree on a long-term extension, preferably before free agency to avoid other potential suitors.

But if the Chargers don’t use the tag or agree on an extension, that would be a telling sign of where Henry falls on the offseason priority list. Henry isn’t viewed as a top-tier tight end like Kansas City’s Travis Kelce or San Francisco’s George Kittle, but he’s not that far behind and would likely see a handful of enticing offers.

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Henry, a 2016 second-round selection, said on a recent appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio that he’s open to playing for another team if he and the Chargers don’t work something out before free agency.

“I think there’s a great prospect there of staying here,” Henry said. “I’m not going to rule it out. I’ve really enjoyed my time here, so I’m not going to ever rule that out. With a young quarterback, me and Justin have formed a relationship, but you know I think I’m open to whatever, and I think I kind of have to in a way, but I’ve really enjoyed my time.

“I want to play somewhere where there’s a good quarterback. That’s huge for our position. It makes things a lot easier. … You gotta look at both. You gotta look at some of the financial stuff, but not dive too deep into it that you go chasing it, because I also want to play with a good quarterback.”


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