SS Clinton Hart (Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty)
A.J. Smith has spent his first five years as the Chargers' general manager assembling a roster three-deep at every position. But as team expert Michael Lombardo points out, one key spot has been woefully overlooked. Here is a look at San Diego’s shallowest position, along with some low-budget free agents who could fill the void.
Smith is a superb evaluator of talent, as evidenced by draft-day steals such as Andrew Pinnock (Rd. 7, 2003), Shaun Phillips (Rd. 4, 2004) and Jeromey Clary (Rd. 6, 2006). However, there is one position where he really struggles to identify top talent: safety.
Since taking over as general manager, Smith has drafted three safeties – 2003 draft picks Terrence Kiel and Hanik Milligan and 2007 selection Eric Weddle – and signed three others as free agents: Kwamie Lassiter (2003), Bhawoh Jue (2005) and Marlon McCree (2006). Kiel and Milligan were released before the end of their rookie contracts, while none of Smith’s free agent signings lasted more than two years in San Diego.
Smith’s inability to land a top-notch safety leaves the team thin going into this season. Weddle will step in to replace McCree in the starting lineup opposite Clinton Hart, but the team’s depth is perilously shallow.
Converted cornerbacks Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver are the top backup safeties. Gregory has only started one game in his career, a virtually meaningless season finale in 2007, and has yet to record more than a dozen tackles in a season or intercept a pass. Oliver failed to escape the inactive list last season after joining the team in the supplemental draft.
If Hart goes down with an injury next season, Gregory or Oliver would be forced to step in at strong safety. Gregory (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) lacks the bulk to be an in-the-box defender. Oliver, while talented and physical, lacks the experience and discipline to merit time in the starting lineup.
The Chargers should consider adding an experienced veteran to the mix. Coy Wire (Buffalo Bills) has the size, experience and special-teams ability to be a strong contributor. Two former Indianapolis Colts, Mike Doss and Idrees Bashir, are also on the market.
Of course, the Colts aren’t the only team with multiple former safeties on the market, as ex-Chargers Kiel and Jue are still available. Keil has more experience, starting more than 50 games at strong safety for the Chargers between 2003 and 2006. However, Jue could be the better fit.
“Jue is better than Kiel at strong safety in our defense,” said one assistant coach when Jue and Kiel were battling for playing time. “Jue is better close to the line because he can turn and run with receivers out of the slot.”
The always steadfast Smith is unlikely to bring back a player he has already deemed expendable. Nonetheless, he needs to do something to bolster San Diego’s depth at safety. If not, the team will skate through the season knowing it is one injury away from springing a giant leak in an otherwise airtight secondary.
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Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.