Do Harbaugh and the Chargers have more work to do at wide receiver?

ByKris Rhim ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

LOS ANGELES -- The Chargers were at the forefront of trade speculation surrounding their No. 5 pick in the months leading up to the NFL draft, and coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Joe Hortiz didn't do much to calm the noise.

Hortiz consistently said that the Chargers were open to trading the fifth pick and believed they essentially had the draft's first pick because four quarterbacks could go ahead of them.

Harbaugh raved so much about his former quarterback, Michigan's J.J. McCarthy, that some teams began to believe that Chargers Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert was available for trade. Multiple teams reached out to the Chargers to trade for Herbert, including the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Hortiz confirmed that multiple teams did reach out about trading for Herbert but that was "never an option."

On draft night, the Chargers received multiple calls for the No. 5 pick, but none that enticed them enough to move out that spot, which they used to draft Notre Dame offensive tackle Joe Alt. He was the best player on the Chargers' board, according to Hortiz, but it was a pick that didn't fill one of the Chargers' biggest needs.

The Chargers' most significant need going into the draft was receiver. L.A. had just four receivers on the roster: Quentin Johnston, Joshua Palmer, Derius Davis and Simi Fehoko, none of whom has had a season over 800 receiving yards.

After the Chargers took Alt, Harbaugh and Hortiz were pressed with questions about the decision to pass on one of the draft's best receivers in favor of a tackle, which appeared to irritate Harbaugh.

"I know the questions are going to come up, and you're going to say, 'Well, what about a weapon?'" Harbaugh said. "Offensive linemen, we look at as weapons. That group, when we talk about attacking on offense, the offensive line is the tip of the spear."

L.A.'s biggest positional investment on draft night came at receiver, however, selecting three players: Georgia's Ladd McConkey in the second round, and USC's Brenden Rice and Michigan's Cornelius Johnson in the seventh.

McConkey projects to be in contention for a starting role based on his selection alone. The Chargers traded up three picks in the second round to select him.

At 6-feet, 186 pounds, with a 4.39 40-yard dash, McConkey is comfortable playing in the slot or out wide. At Georgia, he made 60 catches for six touchdowns when lined up wide and 54 catches for eight scores when lined up in the slot.

"I'm not going to say the names, you're going to know the names of the guys that were drafted high who play corner who he played against," Harbaugh said. "He won some of those battles in man-to-man coverage."

Rice -- who had been projected as high as a day two pick -- and Johnson mainly played out wide in college. Rice is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and excelled at deep catches. Rice led USC with a 14.6 air yards per target average in 2023; seven of his 12 touchdown receptions were on vertical routes, tied for the sixth-most in the FBS in 2023.

"First of all, they both have NFL bodies, they look like NFL receivers," assistant GM Chad Alexander said. "Brenden has a lot of explosive plays down the field, long touchdown production ... Then, Cornelius, same thing. Really productive, tough-minded individual. He might be the best blocking receiver in the draft."

While the additions give the Chargers depth, their coterie of pass-catchers is still a group of players with little experience, a vast change from a room last season that included two of the league's best and experienced receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

"I think that the group that exists is going to go out and compete and challenge each other and try to win for the Chargers," Hortiz said. "If we feel like we can add a player to any group on this team that helps us do those things, we're going to add them -- it doesn't matter the position."

The Chargers announced that they agreed to terms with 21 players after the draft Saturday, though one player on the list, linebacker Luquay Washington, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, meaning the roster stands at 87, three away from the maximum number of 90 in the offseason.

Some wide receiver options on the free agent market include Odell Beckham Jr., Tyler Boyd, Michael Thomas and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

The Chargers don't have a receiver with more than three seasons of experience.

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