The Winter of (San Diego's) Discontent: Moves That Must Be Made This Offseason
While some may argue that the two moves that absolutely must have been made this offseason, namely the firing of Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager AJ Smith, were not, a second straight year of missing the playoffs suggest some much-needed changes.
Whether those changes are a complete overhaul of the roster or a few minor tweaks is up for debate, but is undeniable that certain areas need to be addressed now if Norv Turner and Co. hope to return to postseason play instead of spending the winter at home...unemployed.
Solidify the Offensive Line
As the Chargers head into the offseason, the biggest question lies with their offensive line, particularly in regards to the health of guard Kris Dielman and left tackle Marcus McNeil.
Dielman, who suffered a grand mal seizure on the flight back to San Diego after sustaining a concussion in a Week 7 loss to the Jets, and McNeil, who has a history of neck and back problems, are contemplating retirement.
Center Nick Hardwick is also considering retirement, stating that he must consider his long-term health. Reportedly all three are leaning towards returning, however both McNeil's and Dielman's future will be determined by the Chargers medical staff later this offseason.
While the Chargers are better with all three on the field, major upgrades must be made regardless.
As injuries mounted along the front of the Chargers offense, those asked to step in struggled mightily, as tackle Brandyn Dombrowski gave up four sacks in relief of McNeil in a critical home loss to the Raiders.
The injuries also exposed the Chargers extreme lack of depth along the offensive line as they were forced to turn to the likes of journeymen Tony Moll and Jared Gaither.
While Gaither was a revelation for the team , he is among four free-agent offensive linemen, the others being Moll, Dombrowski, and C/G Scott Mruzkowski.
Gaither is the most likely to be back, especially if McNeil is unable to return, but it is also unlikely that the Chargers shell out the big bucks to a man that played less than half a season with the team, no matter how well he did.
It is unlikely that the other three return, as all three have reached their ceiling in terms of development and can be replaced with more talented veterans or younger draftees with more potential for about the same price.
In addressing the offensive line, expect AJ Smith to pursue veteran free agent talent, a la Mike Goff and Roman Oben when the signing period begins.
The Chargers are not known to be big players in the free-agent market, so it is highly unlikely they target free agents like G Carl Nicks of the New Orleans Saints, which would only be considered if Dielman really is done, and instead opt to pursue cheaper, experienced players as has been his trademark during his tenure with the Chargers.
Come April, the Chargers will likely target one of the top-tier pass rushers in the first round, however if a run on OLB's does occur, the Chargers will draft an offensive linemen with the 18th overall pick.
Both guards and tackles will be up for consideration with players such as Ohio State's Mike Adams, Iowa's Riley Rieff, and Georgia's Cordy Glenn the top candidates for delivering a much-needed upgrade in the protection of QB Philip Rivers.
Get a Pass Rush
It is no secret in San Diego and the rest of the league for that matter that the San Diego Chargers are missing a player capable of providing a consistent and threatening pass rush.
For the past five seasons, OLB Shaun Phillips has been the most talented player on the Chargers front seven, but hewas limited due to injury for much of the past season and was only able to record three sacks.
The Chargers are desperately need a dominant player to pair with Phillips, as former first round pick Larry English has proven to be a major disappointment, missing a total of 19 of his past 32 games, including all of last year due to injury.
In the 29 games English has played in, he has only been able to produce 7 sacks and while there have been flashes, he has never asserted himself to be the replacement for Shawne Merriman he was supposed to be.
Travis Laboy was brought over from San Francisco along with recently fired Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky and underwhelmed as much as the Colts new defensive coordinator did.
While Laboy was hampered with injuries throughout the season, he was largely ineffective when he did play, and was a non-factor in a position that demands impact and production in the 3-4 system.
Perhaps the lone bright spot among the Chargers outside linebackers was Antwan Barnes, who led the team with 11 sacks last season, including a four-sack performance against the Ravens in Week 15.
Barnes, a pass rush specialist who possesses one of the fastest first steps in the NFL, played much more snaps than the Chargers had anticipated going into the season, but played admirably despite not being the greatest at run support or in coverage.
That is not to say Barnes is incapable of playing the run or dropping into coverage, but that he excels at rushing the passer and would benefit greatly by being in a rotation with another great pass rusher who is able to play every down, allowing Barnes to be fresher throughout the season.
Luckily for the Chargers, there exists a variety of options this offseason in how to address what is arguably the team's greatest question mark, and undoubtedly their biggest missing piece.
In free agency, the Chargers could target Dallas Cowboy Anthony Spencer. He played under former Chargers DC Wade Phillips, who runs a very similar scheme to new Chargers DC John Pagano, who has been with the team since 2002.
Bengal Manny Lawson also has experience in the 3-4 and could receive attention from the Chargers. There is some speculation that the free agent Colts defensive end Robert Mathis could make the transition to the 3-4, as he has the size to at 6'2 245 pounds.
However, despite having obvious skill, Mathis is up there in age, and his ability to drop into coverage and his willingness to play in the 3-4 are both unknowns. The Colts are also expected to make the move to the 3-4 this year and letting Mathis walk could be seen as a strike against his ability to play within the system.
Speaking of converted outside linebackers, Houston Texan and former first overall pick Mario Williams is likely to be the crown jewel of this year's free agent class.
While many were concerned as to how Williams would transition to the 3-4, Williams produced five sacks in the first five games of last season before succumbing to a torn pectoral muscle.
Despite the injury, Williams is expected to command top dollar if he is allowed to hit the open market, which remains a distinct possibility given the number of Texans free agents.
However, the Chargers will probably not offer Williams the guaranteed money or long contract he is likely to command, as AJ Smith does not have a history of bringing in high-priced free agents, especially those coming off an injury.
The first round of the NFL Draft is the most likely place where the Chargers will find the pass rusher they need, as the Draft is stocked with numerous players who could fit the bill.
Alabama's Courtney Upshaw is seen as the safest pick, as he has experience standing up and playing with his hand on the ground for the Tide and has produced in both.
USC's Nick Perry possesses the most potential and pass rushing skill among those who have received a first round grade, and could possibly fall to 18th.
At 6'2, 276 pounds, South Carolina's Melvin Ingram blends great size and athleticism, which teams covet.
Sign Vincent Jackson
While most of the Chargers' issues reside on the defensive side of the ball, the most critical free agent the Chargers will be targeting is their own Vincent Jackson, whom Chargers owner Dean Spanos called the team's "top priority."
Vincent Jackson's tenure in San Diego has not been the smoothest, as his early years saw him receive two DUIs, drawing the ire of GM AJ Smith. Jackson also famously missed out on much of the 2010 season in an ugly contract dispute which both Jackson and Smith handled poorly.
However, Jackson played without incident this past season, and is regarded as a professional and articulate young man by much of the organization and community.
Jackson's performance has merited the big payday he is asking, as he has produced three 1,000-yard seasons in the past four years and has proven to be the team's best big-play threat and a critical component to the team's offense.
However, whether the Chargers will be willing to pay Jackson's reported asking price of somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million over five years remains to be seen.
The Chargers have stated that they will not franchise Vincent Jackson for the second year in a row as he would receive one year at $13 million, but they are willing to negotiate a long-term deal.
Recently both QB Philip Rivers and Head Coach Norv Turner voiced their support for retaining Jackson, as he will figure to play a large role in returning the Chargers to the postseason in this most critical year.
Expect the Chargers and Jackson to begin intense negotiations next week and a deal to work out before March, as the Chargers cannot afford to lose Jackson to the open market.
Get Eric Weddle Some Help
To the surprise of many, the Chargers signed safety Eric Weddle to a 5 year, $40 million deal, making him one of the league's highest paid defensive backs.
Luckily for both Weddle and the Chargers, Weddle has lived up to that contract, tying for the league lead in interceptions with seven, earning Weddle a spot on this year's All-Pro team.
Weddle also became the team's undisputed defensive leader and playmaker, but was at times a one-man island out there in the secondary, and not in the Darrelle Revis sense.
One of the few free agents the Chargers did bring in this past season was often-injured safety Bob Sanders. The experiment worked well for a total of two games, after which Sanders was lost for the season, to the surprise of few.
Once again, the Chargers lack of depth was illustrated as Steve Gregory, a solid nickel back, was forced into the starting unit.
Meanwhile, the Chargers longest tenured player, CB Quentin Jammer, despite playing solidly for most of the season, showed his age at times as he was unable to keep up with faster receivers.
Fourth-year CB Antoine Cason, who had played very well his first three years in the league, struggled greatly this past season, as you may have noticed in any and all Plaxico Burress highlight reels.
Rookie CB Marcus Gilchrist showed great potential, but was still very much a rookie. Safety Darrell Stuckey, a fourth-round pick in 2010, was unable to crack the defensive lineup but was a special teams stand out.
Outside of Weddle, the Chargers lacked stability and big-play ability, particularly at the strong safety position.
Not since the likes of Rodney Harrison have the Chargers had an intimidating presence in their secondary and it's a need the team needs to finally address.
Many fans have been clamoring for Quentin Jammer to transition to safety, a move which would suit both his style and ability and one that Jammer has expressed a willingness to make.
However, given the inconsistency of the cornerbacks on the Chargers roster and Norv Turner's denial of such a move has made such a transition unlikely for this coming season.
In free agency, the only high-impact player is Redskins safety Laron Landry. Landry represents what the Chargers defense has lacked for the past couple of seasons, an intimidating player who can punish ball carriers.
Landry would bring a physicality and aggression that the Chargers sorely need. However Landry has a tendency to be too aggressive and is coming off a groin injury that landed him on IR this past season.
This injury though, may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Chargers as it is likely to drop Landry's price down as teams may be unwilling to dole out a large contract to what they may view as talented but damaged goods.
Alabama's Mark Barron is widely regarded as this draft's top safety prospect, and while he is not on par with the likes of Eric Berry or some of the other elite safety prospects of previous drafts, Barron is a solid player and would prove to be an upgrade for the Chargers defense.
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