Chargers Europe Bound

The San Diego Chargers are playing coy in locking up their free agents. Drayton Florence and Michael Turner are treading in shallow water. It's a wait and see day game if they will travel with the team to London in the fall.

INSIDE SLANT

The bulk of the Chargers' schedule will arrive this spring but one date is already set: Oct. 26 in London against the New Orleans Saints.

The Chargers won't get to travel to Bourbon Street, instead taking in Buckingham Palace in the quest to get to a Super Bowl.

It worked for the Giants last year, when they defeated the Miami Dolphins en route to their Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.

And that seems to be the spin the Chargers are taking on trekking halfway across the globe to play the Saints. Funny, but they don't mention that the other team in that international game, the Dolphins, went 1-15.

The talented Chargers would have to take a gigantic face plant to rival the Dolphins' record. But it remains to be seen how the October game will help or hinder a team coming from the West Coast.

One thing is certain. To help with the Chargers' travel challenges, the team will leave directly from one of the three games in the Eastern Time Zone -- Buffalo, Miami and Tampa Bay. It's likely the Buffalo trip will be the springboard for the team's jolly old trip to London.

"It's going to be good exposure for the Chargers, our players and our city and another opportunity for our team to grow together," Chargers president Dean Spanos said of estimated 11,000-mile trip. "We're looking forward to it."

The game is attractive in many ways. Among the story lines is former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees will be playing his first game against his old squad.

"Obviously we feel it's a great matchup and it would have been no matter where we played," Brees said. "The fact that we are going to the U.K. to play this game just adds to that excitement."

Chargers linebackers Shawne Merriman said he'll have something special for his old buddy.

"Now I get to line up against a former teammate of mine and give him, hopefully, a special U.K. lights out dance," Merriman said.

After the game, the Chargers will return to San Diego and be off the following weekend as it will be their bye week.

In 2006, NFL owners approve a five-year plan to play a limited number of regular-season games outside the U.S. The first one was last October when the Giants defeated the Dolphins, 13-10, before a sellout crowd of 81,176.

The Chargers have played four overseas games, all in the preseason. The Chargers faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Tokyo, Japan in 1976; the Giants in Berlin, Germany in 1994; the Pittsburgh Steelers in Tokyo in 1996, and the Denver Broncos in Sydney, Australia in 1999.

--The Chargers were active in the recent Pro Bowl, with a little something old and new.

Veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal, a 15-year pro, scored a touchdown in the AFC's loss to the NFC in Hawaii.

And cornerback Antonio Cromartie, playing in his first Pro Bowl after his first year as a starter, intercepted two more passes.

Cromartie, who lead the NFL with 10 interceptions in the regular season, picked off the Cowboys' Tony Romo and the Bucs' Jeff Garcia in his Pro Bowl debut.

"I go into every game planning to get interceptions," Cromartie said. "I'm just going out there and having fun and playing football."

For Neal it was his fourth Pro Bowl, and AFC and Chargers coach Norv Turner seemed determined to get him the football. Turner gave it to him on consecutive plays before Neal rammed it in from the 1-yard-line.

But Cromartie was the one continuing to impress his Chargers teammates and peers.

"You look at most of his picks this year, and they were great, athletic plays," Chargers defensive end Luis Castillo said. "They were incredible, athletic abilities that most people don't have."

"You look at the fact that he is still so raw in terms of his positioning and football. Not to say he has a long way to go, but he's going to continue to get better. When you have a guy that hasn't played that many full seasons, he's just going to get better and it's scary to think of how good he can possibly be once he develops that all-around game."

Cromartie is ready to push his production next season. While those 10 interceptions last season set a franchise record, Cromartie wants more.

"Fifteen might be the goal next year," Cromartie said.

Cromartie says it and really, no can laugh it off as idle talk. Not after he burst upon the scene to give the Chargers an added push down the stretch. Cromartie didn't work his way into the starting lineup until Nov. 11, and what a coming out party it was. Cromartie intercepted the Colts' Peyton Manning three times.

"I just played football," Cromartie said of his sophomore season. "I went out and had fun every single week, and that's probably the biggest thing for me."

NOTES, QUOTES

--LG Kris Dielman not only played in his first Pro Bowl this month but the first all-star game of any kind at any level. "Played ball with some good dudes," said Dielman, an undrafted free-agent defensive linemen when he originally signed with the Chargers. "I'm really happy I got to meet these guys. The game didn't turn out the way we wanted, but it was a ton of fun."

--OLB Shawne Merriman went to his third Pro Bowl and it was more rewarding than his first visit. "One of the biggest things I learned was how to pay all the bills of the old veterans," Merriman said of his initial Pro Bowl appearance after the 2005 season. "I basically paid every bar tab or room tab."

--P Mike Scifres missed out on the Pro Bowl -- he was a first alternate -- but he had a season to remember. His 46.1-yard average was second in franchise history only to Darren Bennett's 46.2-yard average in 2000.

--The team continues to focus on the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista as a potential stadium site to replace Qualcomm Stadium.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson was only the 12th player in NFL history to win consecutive rushing titles. Although he rushed for 1,474 yards in 2007, it was only the fourth-highest season total of his remarkable career.

--Never in Chargers history had a team done what the 2007 squad accomplished. The Chargers led the league in turnover margin (+24) and interceptions (30).

--When reaching the AFC title game against the Patriots, the Chargers were riding an eight-game winning streak. That marked the third time in the last four seasons the Chargers had won at last eight straight.

--The Chargers scored 400 points (412) for the fourth consecutive year. That's the longest such stint in franchise history.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm excited for him because he works hard and he has the ability to be a great receiver in this league. He has the size, the speed, the hands and I'm glad to work alongside him." -- WR Chris Chambers on teammate Vincent Jackson.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY

Ah, the joys of being a young team which advanced to the AFC Championship Game. The Chargers head into the offseason minus a glaring needs which needs to be plugged.

Their biggest free agent, in their eyes, is probably backup quarterback Billy Volek. They are already expecting to lose cornerback Drayton Florence but should be OK at that position.

The team could add a running back, maybe in the draft, with Michael Turner - LaDainian Tomlinson's fine backup - leaving to find work as a starter.

But most of the work here is going to be adding depth at certain spots. Whatever starters from 2007 not returning, there is already a solid backup in place.

1. Defensive tackle: Even with Pro Bowler Jamal Williams clogging the middle in the 3-4, the Chargers would be wise to look to the future here. Williams has 10 years under his belt and is having a hard time staying healthy.

2. Offensive tackle: Jeromey Clary stepped in for Shane Olivea last year and did a pretty decent job. But long-term the Chargers might look for a possible upgrade.

3. Quarterback: With Philip Rivers coming back from a serious knee injury and the possibility of backup Billy Volek fleeing in free agency, the Chargers could look here.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--CB Drayton Florence is a decent corner and could start for many teams. But he was pushed aside with the emergence of Antonio Cromartie and reduced to the nickel role.

--RB Michael Turner has long had the eye of many NFL general managers with his explosive running between the tackles. Turner saved the Chargers in the AFC divisional playoff game when coming on for an injured LaDainian Tomlinson. He's about to become very rich.

--QB Billy Volek didn't hurt his stock in that same playoff game as he subbed for a gimpy Philip Rivers and led the Chargers on the game-winning drive. The Chargers might not be so blasi about letting Volek slip away, especially with Rivers coming back from a serious knee injury.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--G Scott Mruczkowski is a decent backup and seems to be a favorite of the coaching staff. He likely sticks.

--K Dave Rayner was brought in to cover for Nate Kaeding on kickoffs as Kaeding was kicking with a broken left leg. Rayner isn't in the picture, unless for being a training camp leg as Kaeding is expected to recover and resume the kickoff chores.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

--RT Jeromey Clary stepped in and started the final six games, including all three in the playoffs. When Shane Olivea's play became inconsistent, Clary stepped in and the line had some of its best games of the season. He'll be back.

--WR Malcom Floyd is probably not coming back as it seems his window of opportunity with the club has expired. He had a hard time being active on Sundays and with Craig Davis, Chris Chambers and Eric Parker expected back next year, Floyd will likely to be elsewhere.

--CB Cletis Gordon saw some action in occasional dime packages with mixed results. But with Florence going and Gordon able to return punts in a pinch, he'll probably stay.

--CB Steve Gregory doesn't figure strongly into their plans; hard to say his status.

--DT Brandon McKinney had some decent spurts when filling in in the rotation of Jamal Williams, Ryon Bingham and himself. Considering Williams' age and health status, McKinney should be back.

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