Chargers Can't Stand Pat in Free Agency

LB Matt Wilhelm (Chris Graythen/Getty)

The Chargers enter the offseason knowing they are fresh off their third straight AFC West title. But they are recognize the team finished at .500 and were above the .500 mark just once the entire season, and that came after it upended the Colts in the playoffs.

So general manager A. J. Smith knows he can't stand pat this offseason, although the Chargers have never been big players in the free agency market under Smith's watch.

What should be eyed is how the running back situation shakes out.

The team crossed off one thing off its to-do list when he designated Darren Sproles as its franchise player. Sproles, who collected more than 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, will earn $6.6 million next season.

Now what do the Chargers do with future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson?

The team has decided it can't afford his $8.8 million salary cap hit next season and is looking to restructure his deal. Tomlinson has said he is open to that possibility, but don't expect this proud player to take a massive pay cut from the $6 million in base salary he has coming next year.

Smith said he will have a decision on Tomlinson by Feb. 26.


DE Igor Olshansky
Laurence Griffiths/Getty
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS

1. Defensive end: Igor Olshansky, a former second-round pick, will be allowed to test the market. The Chargers never did seem high on keeping Olshansky, who complained about how he was used once the season was over. The team will need a starter there, as well as depth.

It has Luis Castillo on the other side, and he's signed to a long-term deal. But he has also had trouble staying fit for 16 games, so a reliable backup could be brought in or added to the mix already in place.

2. Offensive line: The right side of the offensive line will also get some attention. Right guard Mike Goff will likely be sent off into free agency for this 12th season. There is a chance the veteran could return, but not at what he might be able to solicit on the open market.

Right tackle Jeromey Clary was decent in 2008, his first year as a full-time starter. But that's not to say the team will try to upgrade the position, likely through the draft.

3. Inside linebacker: While the Chargers are happy with Stephen Cooper on one side, Matt Wilhelm didn't seize his opportunity to entrench himself in the other spot. He was replaced by Tim Dobbins about halfway through the season. And while Dobbins graded out OK, the team could be seeking more production from the spot.

FREE-AGENT WATCH Let's say things don't work out with LaDainian Tomlinson. Might the Chargers bring in a veteran back like the recently released Fred Taylor or Deuce McAllister to shore up the running game?

It's more likely general manager A.J. Smith brings in some fresh legs via the draft than turning to two options with plenty of miles already on their legs. But it's worth watching.

What the Chargers won't do is chase a high-priced free agent, such as defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth or people of that ilk. Instead, Smith will be content to target lower-priced options and try to fill the team's shortcomings through the draft.

Not only is it against Smith's philosophy to shower big money on free agents, he needs to hoard cap room to take care of some key players who contracts will expired after next season: quarterback Philip Rivers, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and left tackle Marcus McNeill. Tackling Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates' contract situation is also on the horizon.

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