Those familiar with the San Diego Chargers team are also familiar with A.J. Smith’s approach to managing a team. Very few external free agents are signed while excess players are allowed to slough off in exchange for compensatory picks.
Last offseason Smith allowed starters Mike Goff and Igor Olshansky, along with sometime starter Matt Wilhelm and a quartet of reserves to depart. In exchange he signed one player, Cowboys free agent Kevin Burnett, who as a rotation linebacker fell into the gray as more than a reserve, less than a starter.
This year’s batch is primarily restricted, as well as several being more vital pieces of the team. It can be difficult to sign them all, so forgoing the easier who “should” stay notion, what would be the impact of each leaving? That is the question to ponder if they can’t get all they wish.
The key to restricted free agency among these players would be what the tender they place would be, as it has direct tie into how they are compensated.
The highest tender yields a first and third round draft pick in compensation, and is upwards of three million. The next level, still deemed high, would be just that first round pick, and would come in a little under three million. Below that, a middle tender would net a second round draft pick and approach two million. The final, a low tender, garners only the player’s original draft pick (so a low tender to Darren Sproles for examples would be worth a fourth round draft pick) but stands at a little over one million.
So just who stays and who goes? Among the key restricted options (i.e. excluding the unrestricted likes of Osgood and Manumaleuna) the order of sacrifice-ability is as follows:
Vincent Jackson: Despite other weapons, Jackson sits as probably the most vital re-signing. His size and jump-ball ability not only open up the Charger’s deep game, but draw defenders away that open space for Gates and Floyd.
Jackson has his share of off-field problems, however he has not appeared to let any of that bleed into his NFL life. With Reggie Wayne missing the pro bowl due to other commitments the next week, Jackson can now add that Miami visit to his resume.
If they lose him: The one thing the team has going for it in this scenario would be the asking price. Jackson will demand the highest tender, which would include a first round draft pick. Unfortunately this draft doesn’t have that many great first-round caliber wideout prospects, and trading a high pick to replace Jackson with Anquan Boldin would be unlikely given Smith’s track record.
Verdict: Despite the potential for good returns if a team grabs him, Jackson needs to be locked up.
Marcus McNeill: The other critical choice. San Diego already needs one starting tackle, having to replace both could be disastrous to a team that needs to improve its run-blocking dramatically. McNeill’s giant frame makes him very difficult to get around in the pass-rush as well, with the team yielding only 26 sacks despite Rivers’ lead feet.
If they lose him: Like many names on this list, McNeill is going to go at a high tender. Young pro-bowl left tackles are a tremendous commodity and will go at a high price. There are a few solid left tackle prospects in this draft, and while a pick high enough to land Russel Okung is a near impossibility, something in the way of a Brian Bulaga might be on the table.
Verdict: There are a few solid options that could be had in the mid first round (11-25) range, but with the team already likely to put a rookie at right tackle, it is not an appealing prospect. Like Jackson he is vital.
Malcom Floyd: While others may bump other more spot-light players ahead of him, Floyd ranks third here because of several factors surrounding both him and the other names involved. It will be harder to justify a huge tender on Floyd as he is the third option despite being the number two wideout, and has only been the starter since the middle of last season.
If they lose him: Assuming he lands as a middle tender and not high, the team would need to use either the replacement second-round pick, or their preexisting second rounder to try and snag a replacement. The team only has three wide receivers that actively see the field, and Legedu Naanee, while versatile is not built to start in this team’s offensive system.
Golden Tate would be unlikely to drop far enough, so they would likely have to hope Brandon LaFell drops far enough as this draft does not have that many good big wideouts. Should an ideal choice not be available they may also spend the second on another need and wait for a later option like Danario Alexander or Dezmon Brisco.
Verdict: Floyd’s success owes much to his ideal fit in the team’s system, and there just aren’t that many six-three or better wideouts that are among the top rated in this draft. Both Floyd and San Diego are well served if he stays here.
Darren Sproles: This one may take considerable flak, but Sproles is more expendable than most consider. He is a great multi-use tool, and is assuredly an asset to the team, however cost to contribution rate just wasn’t line as last season’s franchise-tag.
Sproles proved in 2009 he is far more effective as a change of pace instead of a tandem back. Carrying the ball five times or less his average was nearly seven yards a carry, when given the ball more frequently he averaged less than three per attempt.
Known as a special teams standout he ranked 18th in the league in kick returns among players with at least 20 returns, and 22nd among punt returners with at least 20 returns, posting very average numbers in both (24.1 and 7.0 yards per attempt respectively).
He is still a critical component to the team’s offense, serving as an excellent receiving back (just under five hundred yards catching, more than one hundred over his rushing total) and also as a useful decoy that teams have to plan for. The question is, what is the price value on limited-snaps role player?
If they lose him: This all depends on the tender, and how the team chooses to address its starting running back position. If they use the first round pick on a back or grab a second rounder they are very high on, the team may wait for the very late rounds to grab a backup-only type guy.
If they don’t find a back early, they could possibly spend two mid-round picks on backs and have them compete for the lead role while working for more of a tandem system.
The other wildcard would be the dual fullbacks. With both seeing significant time in 2009, it could be possible to try and slide one to the tailback position, the natural position for both anyway,
Verdict: While he is probably high on the team’s wish-list, he may hold better perceived value than actual value. Should they offer a middle tender to him, the team may be willing to part with the popular scatback in exchange for a second rounder that it would try to find a starter with. Either way the team can’t afford to give up starter’s pay again with so many players needing contracts.
Shawne Merriman: A tough read. He has been worth four sacks and 38 tackles across 15 total games over the last two years. He also has 131 tackles and 30 sacks the year prior. With the team having pass-rush difficulties the last two years, and virtually no depth beyond Larry English, it may be a necessary to chance his return to form.
If they lose him: This one falls to the tender issue once more. The team would probably hope to avoid the highest tender due to Merriman’s inherent risk. His three double digit sack years prior may make it hard to get away with only middle-tendering him.
If he does go they will need to try and find a day-one prospect. Jerry Porter’s expressed interest in the team, but like Boldin, he is an interesting proposition that hasn’t much chance of happening with Smith calling the shots.
If Jerry Hughes or Brandon Graham come off the board before the team has a chance (highly likely), it gets a bit tougher to choose. If they can grab Ricky Sapp or Sergio Kindle in the second they should be relatively set however.
Verdict: Tough to say. With a high tender (first rounder) it is a no-brainer, take the first. Larry English is raw but athletic, and at minimum would not be a downgrade over 2009’s Merriman. Becomes a tougher sell in exchange for a second rounder, as I’m not sold on any of the rush ends after the top two.
Either way for the money he’d likely be worth as a 25 year old pass rusher with three big years already accrued, I’d personally accept the deal, not only because of the possibility of similar results with English or a draft pick, but also because that money might be better served focused on the names above him on this list.
Tim Dobbins: Like the aforementioned Kevin Burnett, Dobbins is a rotation inside linebacker, getting more field time than a backup, but not a true starter (technically Stephen Cooper and Brandon Siler hold the starter’s title). He fits well within the team’s four-man platoon at the position, but has a very one-sided game as a run-stuffer who is weak in the passing game.
If they lose him: Brandon Siler’s emergence softens the possible blow considerably. The one downside is that he does not warrant middle-tender money, but would only be worth a fifth round pick as a low tender. Even at low tender though he may not be pulled away as his value to San Diego is probably higher than his value to the bulk of the league.
There’s an outside shot to try for someone like Brandon Spikes, but more likely would be waiting for deeper rounds, Jamar Chaney or Pat Angerer could be grabbed as solid third round choices, but the team could wait for later rounds and a guy like Darryl Sharpton, a smaller faster ILB that they could try to make a passing down specialist.
Jeromey Clary: The current starting right tackle. He is a solid and versatile guy that can be plugged into multiple positions along the line; this makes him invaluable as the team’s sixth lineman and would be a decent starting guard. Unfortunately he could not fulfill that role as he was instead the starting right tackle, a position that at times exposed his mediocre lateral movement and strength.
If they lose him: With or without him the team needs one more lineman. The odds of seeing a middle tender to him are slim, but the sixth rounder he would be worth as a low tender doesn’t help the team much. The main difference would be priority.
If gone, the team needs to look to the first two rounds as a means to replacement, hoping Trent Williams drops far enough in the first or Selvish Capers or Charles Brown finds their way to the late second. If Clary is retained they can afford to wait for a third round option like Ciron Black since they would have a more capable backup should the later choice need more development time.
Verdict: The team seems to like him more than I. He is young and versatile, which makes him an asset to have around, however I can’t help but wonder if his being signed elsewhere could be a benefit, as the team may be forced to seek out a better right tackle while it could put the issue on back-burner if he is retained. It would help the team were he to stay, but in a reserve capacity.