If I were a carpenter...

Justin Peelle

Now that Jamal Williams has been signed to a five-year extension, the Chargers have turned their attention to reaching accords with Antonio Gates and Toniu Fonoti, the two players many have called the team's last priority signings.

There are, however, two other players who should be targeted for new deals as well. While these players may not be of the same magnitude of Williams, Gates and Fonoti, they should still be considered cornerstones of the future of the San Diego Chargers. These players are Reche Caldwell and Justin Peelle.

While Caldwell's development has been hindered by an unfortunate rash of injuries, he has proven he can produce when healthy. Last season he was on pace for over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns before he was hurt in week six.

"Reche is taking his game to a new level," quarterback Drew Brees said. "We are relying on him to carry a lot of the weight on offense. Reche Caldwell is a big part of our offense and he knows that."

Caldwell has good size, good speed and great hands. His route running has consistently improved over the course of his career, and he appears ready to push for the starting spot opposite Keenan McCardell.

The fact that Caldwell and McCardell were never on the field at the same time last season helps to explain why the Chargers failed to produce a single receiver with a fifty-catch season. If both Caldwell and McCardell stay healthy this year, expect both to reach that mark with room to spare.

"One of the most encouraging things in this offseason is the progress of Reche Caldwell," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said earlier this offseason. "He took off chasing someone and he was running awfully fast."

The other player deserving of a new deal, Justin Peelle, is one of the most underrated players on the roster. His blocking ability has not only helped open up running lanes for LaDainian Tomlinson, but it has also freed Antonio Gates from many of his blocking responsibilities, allowing him to excel like he has as a receiver.

While Peelle may not be as dynamic as Gates, he has the ability to make plays with the ball as well. When defenses focus too heavily on Gates, the Chargers can count on Peelle to exploit any and all mismatches provided to him.

Peelle's touchdown total and yards per catch have increased every year he has been in the league, but the stats do not tell the tale of his productivity. He sets up the stars so they can do their jobs well, and it has been his consistent ability to do so that has allowed the Chargers offense to flourish as it has.

"Everybody talks about Gates, but Justin Peelle," Brees began, "what he does for us from the standpoint of blocking and route running. He is the ultimate."

While some may not consider a setup man a priority signing, they must realize that the recently-extended Williams is a setup man as well. Williams earned his money by tying up blockers so that Donnie Edwards and Steve Foley could have the dominant seasons they each enjoyed. Peelle functions in a similar fashion, opening holes for Tomlinson, exploiting mismatches created by Gates, and keeping pass rushers off of Drew Brees, albeit to a lesser degree than the mighty Williams.

Both Caldwell and Peelle deserve new deals. The team would be wise to take such action now, because the price will likely be steeper by season's end.

The perfect example of why being proactive is the right way to handle these situations comes in the case of Eric Parker. Last offseason, the team signed Parker to a new three-year contract at a very modest cost. Parker responded by catching more passes for more yards than he had in his two previous years combined.

Had the Chargers not signed Parker when they did, his cost would have been significantly higher right now. Had they not met that cost, his name would have been added to the list of players who would be free agents after this season.

The Chargers have done a great job retaining talent this offseason. Giving new deals to A.J. Smith, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Foley, McCardell and Williams has kept the core of the team in place. New deals are also pending for Gates and Fonoti. However, most of these deals were no-brainers.

If the team really wants to show off its collective football acumen, it would be wise to lock up Caldwell and Peelle now while the timing and price are both right. It may be the other deals that make the headlines, but it is often those that merit only a blip on the transactions wire that have the greatest impact.

If the Chargers want their offense to continue to make an equally great impact, they will surely need both Caldwell and Peelle to do it.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net

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