Given the rather sweeping motions taken by general manager A.J. Smith, it would appear that much of the offseason has proceeded as planned.
Several overpaid and underproductive veterans like Jamal Williams, Antonio Cromartie, and LaDainian Tomlinson were jettisoned while a few puzzle pieces (cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland, depth running back Marcus Mason) were brought on board prior to the draft.
The moves culminated with an eventful draft in which Smith moved up three separate times to grab Ryan Mathews, Donald Butler, and Cam Thomas in the first, third, and fifth rounds, respectively.
This series of moves has left San Diego fans with most of their offseason questions answered.
It is now known who is expected to fill the shoes of Tomlinson and Williams, how they will look to address the secondary (beyond the additional cornerbacks they also drafted strong safety Darrell Stuckey, who could quickly unseat Kevin Ellison as a starter), and how they can get more athletic and physical at linebacker.
So what issues remain?
Obviously there is the question of how each of these new pieces will perform; that is a given with any transaction be it draft, trade, or free-agent signing. After that, however, the most nagging question(s) revolve around one player: Shawne Merriman.
Merriman is a very difficult player for the San Diego Chargers to evaluate, as his status is looking more and more like a potential minefield.
The San Diego Chargers entered the offseason unwilling to commit to a long-term contract with Merriman, given that the former Defensive Player of the Year candidate has given the team a total of four sacks over the past two years.
A steroid suspension and legal dealings are both strikes that also threaten to dig into any notion of signing him in good faith. It is also to be noted that while nothing came of the Tila Tequila incident, Ben Roethlisberger is a sobering example of how Roger Goodell does not reserve judgment based upon legal action alone.
Following that array of concerns one would think Merriman’s primary focus would be to prove himself as a dominant player.
Instead Merriman entered the offseason first describing how he had probably played his last game in a Chargers uniform, then expressing outrage over being tendered by the team.
Never mind he looked more and more disposable as the 2009 season wore on, and that an RFA tender would allow him to be a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent in the upcoming offseason; Merriman felt he deserved elite pay now.
Following his initial reaction he hasn’t been a tremendously disruptive force other than that he has yet to sign that tender given him, which severely hamstrings any efforts to potentially trade Merriman this offseason.
Because of this, the two will be most likely be forced into an unsteady accord in 2010. Merriman cannot hold out without damaging his hopes for a lucrative deal in 2011, while San Diego would have a hard time securing anything approaching value for him at this point even if he does sign.
For 2010 the two sides will be paired together, but look for Merriman to be exiting the scene afterward. San Diego has too many upcoming free agents, and Merriman would either be too expensive (if he can put up at least eight sacks) or not worth retaining (if he puts up fewer than that).
So where does San Diego look to replace a man many felt would be the face of this team’s defense for years to come? They have several avenues they may pursue.
1. Larry English
San Diego drafted English in the middle of the first round in 2009, so English is primed to eventually secure a starting role.
He is not the brute-force type of player Merriman is, giving up an inch and 10 pounds to the current starter, but he's big enough, and he replaces that size with a more versatile form of athleticism. He is quicker and able to impact plays even when he cannot get to the quarterback, showing a knack for batting down passes in his rookie season.
San Diego already looks to be faster and more athletic with Donald Butler and Darrell Stuckey, so English is a natural addition to that changing formula.
2. Draft Vonn Miller/Robert Quinn
While I feel the ideal replacement for Merriman was to be found in this year’s draft in Jerry Hughes, Indianapolis ensured he would not become a sore point of that potential 40th overall pick by securing him in the later stages of the first round.
Predicting just where prospects will lie a full year in advance is virtually impossible. As of the 2009 draft, Jevan Snead and Taylor Mays were supposed to become top-10 picks this year, while no one had heard of Jason Pierre-Paul.
As the top projected rush linebackers are picked to go in the mid-20s in the couple 2011 mocks I’ve seen, this represents spending the team’s top pick on whoever is the best available outside linebacker at the time of the draft.
The upside to this is a trio of talent with the rookie rotating with English alongside the seasoned vet Shaun Phillips. The downside is that a rookie is unknown territory, a fact that holds especially true at positions like cornerback, pass rusher, or defensive tackle.
The other downside would be that San Diego no longer has that first-round selection to spend on a possible replacement for any other free agent that may be departing (Darren Sproles, Malcom Floyd, etc.). The team does have a very top-heavy draft, with five selections in the top three rounds, however, so they will have some flexibility.
3. Draft an OLB in Round Two or Three
Finding late-round gems is something of a trademark for A.J. Smith, but these players are rarely immediate impact players.
Given that San Diego has four picks between these two rounds, it is safe to say that if they want a player to compete with Larry English for a starting role, the team will look to the first two days of the draft to find him.
Players like Sergio Kindle and Jason Worilds showed that good talent could be had at OLB after the first round, though the advisability of making this deal depends heavily upon how deep the top and upper-second rush linebacking tiers are.
If the upcoming class looks as deep as this year’s collection of corners, this might just be the value way to address Merriman’s departure.
4. Sign a Free Agent
Initially this sounds counter-intuitive to letting Merriman walk, but there are two things that could help this scenario make more sense.
- Some team overpays Merriman based on his first three years: If this is the case, San Diego might find a player of similar quality for a good deal cheaper than the possibly high price tag Merriman could fetch if he comes close to double-digit sacks.
- Letting him walk for another four-sack season: This one is self-explanatory. If Merriman’s 2010 season is similar to the one he just finished, then San Diego will not look to retain his services no matter what the price.
Who will be re-signed, gain an extension, have a stud year, and become overpriced can all factor into the equation, but here are a few names currently set to be free agents that could be in the running:
Young and talented, he will likely far outprice San Diego, but if they are willing to pay up for a pass rush, he could fit under Scenario No. 2. Realistically, however, given their free-agent concerns and A.J. Smith’s philosophy, an elite free agent is not likely.
With Buffalo converting to a 3-4, Kelsay will be asked to move from defensive end to the outside linebacker role. His first year at the position could be an adjustment period, which might make him suffer statistically, thus driving down his price.
This could make him a bargain pickup of a veteran who will have a year of 3-4 familiarity as well as an ability to give the team a nice veteran presence, as they will likely get even younger in 2011. He would be a stabilizing one- or two-year rental while the team sorts out the position.
Something of a happy medium between price and talent. He is a solid eight-plus-sack talent who was converted from end to outside linebacker as Kansas City made the switch to 3-4.
He probably won't be a Pro Bowler, but figures to put up similar numbers to what I expect of Merriman, but a lack of monster years should mean he offers a similar bang for a lot less buck.
With Pittsburgh needing to pay out big money to retain Woodley, the man behind him may just slip by for a good price. Frazier would give the team a different feel, as he is probably more ideally suited to playing outside in a 4-3 but has the experience playing in a refined Pittsburgh 3-4 behind a pair of elite pass rushers in Harrison and Woodley.
He won’t be a double-digit-sack threat, but he is a very good and athletic coverage linebacker who can also chase down running backs from behind, making him a nice fit into a zone rather than blitz-heavy scheme (such as what Ron Rivera runs).
5. Sign Merriman This Offseason
The final idea centers around the notion that if the San Diego Chargers feel Merriman will return to form, then they should work out a longer-term deal now.
Merriman’s asking price is probably outpacing his market value at the moment, as he seems unable to recognize how little he has brought to the club over the past two seasons.
That said, assuming Merriman approaches double-digit sack totals in 2010, his asking price will only go up from here. If San Diego has any hope to retain him beyond the 2010 season, then they should work out a deal now when Merriman’s asking price will be the moon, but at least not the stars to go with it.
There is no perfect answer, and the entire situation cannot be clarified until the season is over, when the team knows what kind of production Merriman is shown to be capable of, as well as the market for his services and the progress of Larry English.
With all that said, the way the Shawne Merriman situation has played out to this point has not been working in San Diego's favor, and it may very well leave them hunting for a replacement without any compensation for the departing free agent.