AJ Smith and the rest of the Chargers brain trust got straight to work on Tuesday, the first day in which teams were allowed to negotiate with players as the NFL finally got back to work after a 130-day lockout.
The Chargers began their day in retaining key veterans in backup tight end Randy McMichael, who filled in admirably by catching 20 passes last season, his first in San Diego, after star Antonio Gates went down with a foot injury. McMichael proved to be a reliable target for Philip Rivers, who was faced with a revolving door of off-the-street receivers last season, in which 17 different players caught a ball.
The Chargers also inked starting RT Jeromey Clary to a four-year, $20 million deal on Monday, solidifying an already strong and cohesive offensive line. While fans have long called for an upgrade to Clary, who has been known to commit the costly penalty or two as well as struggle in the run game. Against top-flight defensive ends, the right tackle out of Kansas State has long earned the trust and endorsement of the Chargers brass and they view him as a vital part of the unit charged with protecting QB Philip Rivers. Though Clary is not the flashiest player, he is a solid RT with above-average pass protection skills who fits well into the Chargers scheme.
The Chargers also signed former 49ers ILB Takeo Spikes, a move long predicted by analysts and fans alike. Though Spikes is 34 years old, he has remained productive in his three years playing in the Bay Area. He should continue to produce with the San Diego Chargers and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who was also brought in from San Francisco. While some may question the significance of this move when considering Spikes' mileage, the Chargers must firmly believe Spikes has a lot left in the tank as you can bet Manusky pushed hard for his former linebacker and would not have done otherwise if he believed him to be on his last legs.
The signing of Spikes most likely spells the end for former on-the-field defensive play caller Stephen Cooper, who is a free agent, although he was not expected to be brought back regardless of where Spikes landed. Spikes will be expected to assume the leadership role he had in San Francisco and should provide a stabilizing force in the locker room. Spikes is the expected starter in San Diego, but many wonder who will line up next to him. With essentially two rookies in 2011 second-round pick Jonas Mouton and Donald Butler, a third-round pick in 2010 who missed all of last season, it's expected that the Chargers will sign at least one more ILB.
Free agent Kevin Burnett, who was a backup in Dallas before arriving in San Diego in 2009, emerged as a play maker and leader for the Chargers last season in which he compiled 95 tackles along with six sacks and forced four turnovers. He is likely the team's top target. Green Bay Packers LB Nick Barnett is also another name to keep an eye on as the Packers have stated that they will either trade or cut the linebacker, and Barnett himself has expressed interest in the Chargers, among other teams.
Perhaps the biggest news for Chargers fans is that WR Vincent Jackson has stated that he will indeed sign his franchise tag at 3:01 p.m. on Friday, the first minute in which teams are allowed to sign players.
Vincent Jackson was sorely missed by the Chargers last season. That he will play a full season for a team that finished No. 1 in offense last season has turned a great offense into perhaps the NFL's best.
What may be stopping the Chargers from that paper title is the future of Jackson's compatriot Malcom Floyd. Floyd is an unrestricted free agent whom the San Diego Union Tribune is reporting will not be returning to the Chargers, as they will most likely not be able to or will choose not to offer Floyd what he stands to make from another suitor.
That being said, the Chargers wide receiving corps as of Friday will most likely be Jackson, Patrick Crayton, Seyi Ajirotutu, rookie Vincent Brown, and the ever-disappointing former first rounder, who may or may not be cut, Buster Davis. However, the departure of Floyd may just open the doors for unhappy Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith who is very interested in suiting up for the Chargers, an interest that was apparently being increasingly reciprocated as the lockout wore on.
As the free-agency madness continues, expect the Chargers to pursue one more inside linebacker, a pass-rushing specialist at outside linebacker, a wide receiver, and depth at safety. Also, as players move around and are re-signed, expect the Chargers to extend some of their own guys, like Antwan Barnes and possibly Paul Oliver.
But amidst all the chaos, most Chargers fans will continue to wait with baited breath until the future of the controversial second-team All-Pro safety Eric Weddle is decided. With regards to Weddle, I can only assume that no news is good news, if good news means that No. 32 is back in blue and gold next season.