AJ Smith's Gamble: Tackling the Chargers 2011 Free Agents

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AJ Smith's Gamble: Tackling the Chargers 2011 Free Agents
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Are the San Diego Chargers insane, or are they just playing pure genius by having almost all of their main playmakers in a position for free agency after this upcoming NFL season?

What's really scary is that most of them will be unrestricted free agents. Nevertheless, it's going to be a very tough battle for the Chargers' front office next season. So I ask, are the Chargers really in control of what's going on, or are they running the risk of losing everybody? I hope they know what we are doing—especially for general manager AJ Smith's sake.

Here is a pretty good list of free agents in general, without separating the RFA from the UFA. Players include: Travis Johnson, Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Marcus McNeil, Shawne Merriman, Mike Tolbert, Legadu Naanee, Jeromey Clary, Antwan Applewhite, Antonio Gates, Scott Mruczkowski, Ryon Bingham, Jacques Cesaire, Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett, Brandon Siler, Eric Weddle, and Paul Oliver.

That's a long list, with many players who are the very makeup of who and what the Chargers are. You talk about quality players, no team has more quality players set for the free agency than San Diego.

It is a fear that most of us fans are quite worried about, which brings a lot of doubts about the Chargers' chances of winning. Thus, rumors that the Chargers' window of opportunity is closing on them may not be too far fetched.

However, there is a reason for the madness. At least I think there is.

The main factors that Smith and team president/owner Dean Spanos have yet to resign most of the aforementioned players, has a lot to do with the ongoing NFL labor talks and the new collective bargaining agreement. In doing so, the Chargers have an uncapped year for the 2010 season.  

Sure owners all over the league could have gone and signed a whole bunch of great name players. Even teams struggling to resign their own players are giving it a second thought.

The Chargers were just lucky enough to have most of their players up this year, with the RFA making them put high-value picks in trade for their services for other interested teams. Given the amount of prospective free-agent players, the Chargers might as well secure their players now in case they decide to walk.

But here's the thing: The Chargers are taking a great leap of faith, and it's that leap of faith that will change the entire landscape and makeup of who will stay, who will go, and who will fill in to be the next decade of Chargers.

Such a leap of faith is simple, as that strategy comes down to two words: saving money.

If the Chargers give key players long-term contracts this year, it might work against them when the new collective bargaining with the NFL labor union come to an agreement.

The reason why is that the Chargers don't know how much of the money they'll pay their players this year in a long-term contract will effect the proposed new salary cap the following year.

If the Chargers don't know where that limit is, how are they suppose to just sign all these key players back such as Floyd, Jackson, Merriman, and McNeil.

The negatives to keeping so many players that were restricted free agents this year such as Merriman, McNeil, Floyd, and Jackson, is the fact that they are unrestricted free agents next season, which means they can walk to another team if they like their offer.

Also, the Chargers only have one franchise tag, and the Chargers obviously can't "tag" everyone. Not to mention that after this season, if said players choose to leave, the Chargers won't receive compensation, so they practically wasted their time.

The Chargers can't trade these players, even though they are under contract, because most teams would want these players already to be on long-term deals, so they in turn, don't have to deal with the headache of resigning players.

But here is the gamble the Chargers are taking, and the likely positives they will be looking at.

With all of these players on one-year contracts, it gives the Chargers the ability to save big amounts of money for this season, and with that money saved, they'll offer bigger bonuses to attract players that show up this season to resign with the Chargers for the long-term.

By the start of the 2011 season, the new collective bargaining agreement should have been reached, thus giving the Chargers an idea of how high that "ceiling" is going to be for resigning multiple key players.

Another plus is the fact that this will give the Chargers an opportunity to evaluate which players can stay, and who can go.

Obviously, what the Chargers want to do more of offensively is find a balance with the run and pass. And that's the true genius of this—we'll see the Chargers take shape and what they'll look like for the following decade depending on what happens next season.

It's crazy, I know, but it's also exciting.

Smith has a tough mission to accomplish following this season. Many variables in how the Chargers will move forward, and in which direction, will make the Chargers' job that much more difficult.

The advantage of this problem is that the Chargers will surprise many teams with a completely different look and team come 2011.

In the meantime, don't be surprised to see Smith sign one of his current players to a long-term deal, just to get something out of him before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. That player will more than likely be Merriman.

The fact that Larry English and Shaun Phillips are signed all the way through 2015 and 2016, respectively, could be a huge factor for getting rid of Merriman.

Here are the things that may work in Smith's favor for keeping Merriman. One is his age, as Merriman is only 25, while Phillips is upward of three years older.

If Merriman has a breakout year, and looks to be like his old self, the Chargers may sign him to a long-term deal and get rid of Phillips, who is going to be almost 30 after next season. Since Phillips didn't cost the team too much, the Chargers should get great compensation for him. 

I could go on and on with that type of situation for all of our players, but as you've probably realized by now, the positives of having all these players under one-year contracts does help the Chargers save money, give bigger signing bonuses for players, and not over-signing players without knowing the 2011 salary cap.

The picking and choosing of which players are going to stay, and who will go as the Chargers offense moves toward being more balanced, is like that of the Cowboys during Norv Turner's days there.

Since the Chargers drafted Ryan Mathews, a very balanced running back, it gives them more of an incentive to take a shot at being a more balanced offense once Mathew gains some experience.

The Chargers may be on to something, and are one of the few teams that are lucky to be in a position to pick-and-choose who stays, and form the Chargers of the future.

This season will be the Chargers' best yet.

With the players' hunger for a new contract, and desire to stay in a sunny location with one of the most successful franchises in the last decade, it's going to be one hell of a competitive year for the Chargers to get it done.

At least for one year, the Chargers are going to have a strong All-Star cast of players to contend for the Lombardi Trophy that has long eluded the franchise.

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