Inside the Chargers trade that blindsided Keenan Allen

Justin Herbert's surprising stats without Keenan Allen, Mike Williams (0:54)

With the Chargers moving on from Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, we look back at how Justin Herbert has fared without his top wideouts. (0:54)

CLAD IN HIS Chicago Bears gear at the University of Southern California's pro day on March 20, Keenan Allen exchanged pleasantries with his potential future quarterback, Caleb Williams, and Bears personnel.

It was a moment that would have seemed implausible a week before. The 2024 season was supposed to be the final year of Allen's contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Allen, who spent his entire 11-year career with the Chargers, made an effort at the end of last season to pledge his loyalty to the organization.

"I don't want to go nowhere else," Allen told reporters in January. "If it did come down to that, adios amigos."

The 31-year-old was coming off the best season of his career. Despite being limited to 13 games after a heel injury ended his season, Allen finished sixth in the NFL in receptions (108) and 11th in receiving yards (1,243).

Because of several costly contract restructures last offseason, the Chargers were almost $20 million over the salary cap ahead of the start of the new league year. Allen, wide receiver Mike Williams and linebackers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack had four of the five highest non-quarterback salary cap hits in the league for 2024. Allen's $34.7 million cap hit made it likely that the Chargers would look to restructure his deal, trade him or release him.

League rules required the Chargers to be under the $255.4 million cap by 4 p.m. ET on March 13. They released Williams that day, saving $20 million in 2024, which made them cap compliant. Mack and Bosa agreed to take pay cuts that saved the Chargers nearly $24 million.

The Chargers were hoping Allen, who had been vocal about his desire to stay with the team, would also agree to a revised deal. But the two sides couldn't agree on an adjusted contract, and the Chargers traded Allen to the Bears for a fourth-round pick (No. 110) on March 14. It was the most shocking move of coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Joe Hortiz's first month in their new roles and sheds light on their team-building strategy as they usher in a new era for the Chargers.

Allen has not publicly acknowledged his 11 years with the Chargers. He told reporters in Chicago that there was "no emotion" in his decision not to take a pay cut to remain in L.A. But sources close to Allen say the trade -- and how the Chargers handled negotiations despite his allegiance to the franchise -- stunned and hurt him.

"I obviously wanted to finish my career there," Allen said, "but things happen, and you've got to keep on moving."

IN THE DAYS following the NFL combine, the Chargers asked Allen to take a pay cut similar to that of Mack and Bosa, though Allen's included a two-year extension with an average salary of less than his base $18 million, according to sources close to the negotiation.

Two days later, Allen's team proposed a multiyear counteroffer that would have made Allen among the league's highest-paid receivers, but it was summarily rejected, according to multiple sources close to the negotiations.

There were deals around the NFL that set a framework for what Allen could potentially net, such as 29-year-old Calvin Ridley, who signed a four-year, $92 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.

When the Chargers approached Bosa and Mack with pay cuts, saving a combined $24 million, sources close to Allen said he believed he would not be asked to take a pay cut coming off a career-best year. The Chargers still asked for the pay cut after getting well below the cap, which was a source of confusion and frustration for Allen's camp, according to sources close to the negotiations.

But Hortiz has since explained that Allen's cap hit would have kept the Chargers' brass from building the roster they envisioned. He also wanted the Chargers to have flexibility for in-season trades and signings.

"I know in the past there haven't been a lot of additions during the season with trades," Hortiz said, " but that's something I believe in."

Allen was due a $5 million roster bonus on March 17, which set a deadline for when the Chargers needed to move him. Hortiz engaged with interested teams, including the Houston Texans -- who offered a package that included a 2025 third-round pick and pick swap, according to a team source -- and the New York Jets.

Allen's contract was a hurdle in negotiations, and many teams didn't engage in trade talks with the Chargers because of Allen's age and salary, according to multiple league sources. Others, including the Bears, asked if he'd be willing to take a pay cut to facilitate the trade, which he declined. His salary, combined with the bonus deadline, limited the Chargers' leverage. Ultimately, the Chargers settled on the Bears' offer for a 2024 fourth-round pick, and Chicago took on Allen's salary.

The Chargers' unwillingness to negotiate is what stunned Allen, sources close to him said. He holds several franchise records for wide receivers, including career receptions and yards. After spending a decade with the Spanos Family ownership, he expected the team would be willing to meet somewhere in the middle, sources close to Allen said.

But the team felt the sides were too far apart on numbers as March 17 loomed, and further negotiating no longer made sense to the organization, according to multiple team sources.

"It's the business part of it. And everybody does what is in their best interest," Harbaugh said. "And Keenan, I mean, [you] make $23 million a year and play in Chicago, you know, who's got it better?"

A DAY AFTER the trade, Allen was on a private jet with his family for the first time in his life. He was headed to Chicago to begin an unanticipated new chapter.

"I didn't think about too much, man," Allen said of the flight. "Just kind of sat back and took it all in and actually understand that this is all happening."

For the Bears, an offense criticized for its lack of talent could now be among the league's best. Allen joins receiver DJ Moore, running back D'Andre Swift, and tight ends Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett. The Bears also hold two first-round picks, including the No. 1 selection, with which they will likely draft Caleb Williams.

Allen will also have a familiar face in the receiver room in coach Chris Beatty, who was the receivers coach for the Chargers from 2021 to 2023. On Monday, Bears general manager Ryan Poles told reporters he expects to agree to an extension with Allen.

"I thought it was an absolute perfect fit," Poles said. "I don't think there's a better receiver in the league that can be better for a young quarterback in terms of understanding the NFL, timing, space, reading defenses."

A year ago, the Chargers' offense had some of the league's best skill position players. They have since parted ways with Allen and other regular contributors in running back Austin Ekeler, Williams and Everett, who played the past two seasons with the Chargers.

But Harbaugh and Hortiz have won this way in the past. Their teams have been buoyed by dominant rushing offenses and feared defenses.

Hortiz spent the past 26 years with the Baltimore Ravens -- beginning as a football personnel assistant and taking over as director of player personnel in 2019 -- an organization with a dreadful history with receivers but that won two Super Bowls during Hortiz's tenure.

The Ravens have never had a player selected to the Pro Bowl as a wide receiver in team history -- three of the top six players on the franchise list for most receiving yards play a different position.

They have drafted six wide receivers in the first round in franchise history, and only Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, taken No. 25 overall in 2019, has eclipsed 1,000 yards in a single season. They traded him to the Arizona Cardinals during the 2022 draft.

Hortiz has dismissed the notion that the Chargers chose defense over a receiver with their salary cap moves.

"It's coincidence just how it worked out," Hortiz said. "You don't marry yourself to two players. You have to look at the value of all of them and the market out there and the opportunities."

Still, a look at Harbaugh's coaching history tells a similar story about how his teams have won.

The San Francisco 49ers, whom he coached from 2011 to 2014, totaled 12,270 yards passing over his four seasons, ranking 30th in the NFL. The rushing offense, meanwhile, ranked second in yards per game (139.6) over that span.

This trend was similar even last year for Harbaugh at the University of Michigan. The Wolverines' offense ranked 81st nationally in passing yards per game (213.7) and sixth in the Big Ten, while the rushing offense was third in their conference (169.1) and 43rd nationally. Running back Blake Corum led the NCAA in rushing touchdowns (27).

Harbaugh won a national title at Michigan last season, where his defense allowed the fewest points in FBS on average (10.4). He also led the 49ers, which allowed the second-fewest points per game (17.4) during his tenure, to three NFC Championships and a Super Bowl appearance. During the Ravens' Super Bowl appearances, Baltimore ranked first in opponents points per game in 2000 and 12th in 2012.

"We're going to aspire to be a team that Vince Lombardi could be proud of," said Harbaugh at his introductory news conference, "blocking, tackling, toughness, playing smart, playing fast, playing physical."

That team Harbaugh and Hortiz envision began with an offensive overhaul, with new starters at receiver, running back, tight end and center, at least.

Allen was one of the team's most admired players, but his departure isn't expected to impact team morale or faith in Harbaugh, multiple team sources said, partly because of how much of the offense isn't returning.

"I knew who I was trading," Hortiz said. "That's not a decision you make with no remorse -- or remorse isn't the word -- but no acknowledgement of that.

"We're going to win. That's what we want to do. So we want guys that want to win and want to be here."