Following widespread reports that Darren Sproles would go untendered because of the $7 million price tag the San Diego Chargers would attach to the gifted role player, the team has apparently changed its mind.
Concerns about the attention already given to the 5’8’’ speed burner before free agency officially begins led San Diego to move to wrap up the player affectionately known as “the lightning bug.”
Sproles joins wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, along with outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and left tackle Marcus McNeill, as restricted free agents given first- and third-round tenders.
At the same time, as Sproles was all but guaranteed a return, another San Diego mainstay was shown the road. Nose tackle Jamal Williams was released, as was little-used backup running back Michael Bennett.
Williams was set to receive a $5 million salary, along with a $1 million roster bonus. That total would nearly cover the $7.283 million salary Sproles is now set to receive.
It was no secret that San Diego was looking to the future at the nose tackle position—be it developing raw prospect Vaughn Martin or pursuing a new option in the draft. Williams will be 34 years old when the season starts, and he had injury concerns even before the 2009 season began.
Instead of the expected concern (knees), Williams tore his triceps muscle and landed on injured reserve after just one game. With his backup, Ryon Bingham, on IR as well, the team trotted out a troupe of rotating nose tackles.
By the later stages of the season, the team had settled into a pattern that was adequate, but far from confidence-inspiring at the position. Most of the team’s interim nose tackles were sized to be 4-3 tackles, with only rookie Martin (6’4’’, 320 pounds) built to eat multiple blockers.
The lack of an heir-apparent in place makes the move something of a surprise. When healthy, Williams still ranked among the best in the league at his position, and the injury that held him out 2009 was not a recurring type of ailment that would affect his future health.
This opens up increased speculation that the team will pursue at least one more nose tackle prospect in the draft. Martin was drafted to be a long-term project, failing to secure a starting role despite the host of injuries at the position. Gambling on his ability to start in 2010 could be very damaging to a team already looking to improve on a vulnerable run defense.
Who the team picks up to either supplant Williams or at least compete with Martin is still a looming question.
The leading candidates, who have been tied in various capacities to the team, would be Dan Williams or Terrence Cody. If Williams slips far enough for San Diego to grab the Tennessee Volunteer, he would be considered a no-brainer.
Cody comes as more of a question mark. As Alabama celebrated its national championship, Cody’s stock rose as high as mid-first round—with most putting him in the mid- to late 20s. Showing up to the Senior Bowl grossly out of shape, Cody’s stock dipped to second- or third-round status.
Straight on the heels of the scouting combine, Cody has now returned his draft stock close to its original status after shedding 16 pounds since the Senior Bowl.
If that sudden commitment to conditioning can remain in place, Cody is a monstrous clog in the middle who should command double-teams and force running backs to bounce outside. If Cody reverts and puts on additional weight, however, he could become a limited-snaps liability that many would deem a waste of a first-round choice.
The wild card in the equation would be a later-round choice. Cam Thomas or Torrell Troup come in with less laudation, but the team should be able to secure one of the two in the second round, preserving the first round for other choices.
Thomas would appear the more start-ready prospect, with a tremendous Senior Bowl and great size (6’4’’, 330 pounds). Troupe is somewhat smaller, at 314 pounds, but he has been impressing in workouts and has his draft stock soaring.
The class thins considerably after that. So if San Diego hasn’t drafted at the position by the end of the second round, if they can secure a sub-80 pick through a trade (Cromartie), expect to see a lot of Martin and Ogemdi Nwagbuo staring down opposing centers in 2010.