Since the beginning of AJ Smith’s tenure as a GM in San Diego, Chargers additions in free agency have always been few to non-existent, with the team addressing its biggest needs mainly through the draft.
This year will be no exception.
The trades of Antonio Cromartie to the New York Jets and Charlie Whitehurst to the Seattle Seahawks, left many Chargers fans– myself included– with the dream that San Diego could use some of the high picks acquired in this and next year’s draft to trade for a franchise player that would fill the team’s primary needs at nose tackle or running back.
A blockbuster trade that would bring in, say, a feature back in the mold of Steven Jackson (for a first round pick, and maybe more) or Marshawn Lynch (for a second round pick), to join Darren Sproles and form one of, if not the most, dangerous backfield tandems in the league.
Picture Steven Jackson and Sproles alongside Rivers, Gates, and Jackson. No defense would ever want to face that, right?
Or maybe a trade up the draft to land one of the premier talents available at nose tackle. A guy like Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh, to provide a staple to Ron Rivera’s 3-4 defense for years to come. How exciting is that?
Now, since we all should know AJ Smith by now, we should also know how many chances there are to see a move like that this off season.
Let’s face it. With the way things are turning out, there is absolutely no chance to see the Chargers sign a big name in free agency. The little hope I had vanished when Chester Taylor and Mike Bell–whom I thought would look especially good in powder and blue– got signed by non-Chargers teams.
Although intriguing, a trade to get Cal alumnus Marshawn Lynch for a second or third round draft pick looks risky, with question marks surrounding his production and all the off-the-field issues that he’s had in the past. And a move up the draft for Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy might not make that much sense, since the depth of this year’s draft would still allow the Chargers to draft a quality nose tackle like Dan Williams or Terrence Cody with their first or second pick.
Besides, let's not forget–a big trade is just not in AJ’s style.
Smith has always been reluctant to make glamorous, big-money moves to sign the “best guy” on the market, but rather preferred signing the “right guy,” one who can fill in the position of need and who can provide an instant contribution for the team.
This year, it was Donald Strickland and Marcus Mason. The former New York Jet is a very interesting addition. Strickland will not only provide the much needed nickel back that was missing in obvious passing situations last year, but he will also be competing for a starting job at corner with Antoine Cason. Should Cason turn in more shaky performances, expect the veteran Strickland to step into the starting lineup sooner than later.
Marcus Mason, like Strickland, is a player that fits just right in the Chargers’ schemes. He is obviously not the answer as a starting running back, but is familiar with running plays out of the shotgun, as well as catching the ball out of the backfield. Expect him to make a decent contribution to the team, with some carries and catches here and there, and maybe some special teams play.
These two additions are actually smarter moves than they may appear.
Strickland provides enough depth at corner, so that the Chargers can afford to use their first two picks to draft at nose tackle and running back (in this order), taking a corner back in later rounds.
Mason will at least be very good competition for any candidate to the third-string back spot in San Diego, and his presence will probably be as needed in training camp as it will be on the field.
Smith might not be signing any big names, but he’s definitely signing the right names. Let's not forget, Smith signed players like Lorenzo Neal, Kris Dielman, and Kevin Burnett, who never commanded big paychecks but did– and still do– an outstanding job for the Chargers.
San Diego Fans, you are in good hands.