CB Antonio Cromartie (Stephen Dunn/Getty)
With the offseason abruptly underway, the San Diego Chargers face a slew of pressing questions. We run down the list and dissect some of the dilemmas facing GM A.J. Smith.
1. How should the Chargers reshape their backfield?
It's essentially a foregone conclusion that LaDainian Tomlinson will not be back next season. But there is still plenty to be determined about the best way to acquire a new lead back. The team could sign an unrestricted free agent like Larry Johnson; it could make an offer to a restricted free agent such as LenDale White; it could trade for a back, perhaps rekindling talks with the Oakland Raiders for Michael Bush; or it could draft a player like Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer.
San Diego could also benefit from adding a bulldozing fullback, although incumbents Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert contribute too much to the passing game and the special teams to be discarded. Instead, the team could consider making one of those two players the No. 3 halfback in place of Michael Bennett, freeing up a spot for a fullback who could spark the running game.
2. In an uncapped year, the CBA only allows the Chargers to sign only one player who makes more than $5.5 million in 2010 (unless the team is replacing one of its own free agents). Is there anyone out there who might interest A.J. Smith?
A lot will depend on what the Chargers do with their fringe players, as well as what other teams do to protect their pending free agents. One player who would make a lot of sense is Kyle Vanden Bosch, a potential unrestricted free agent who could start on the other side of Luis Castillo. Vanden Bosch has the power, intensity and pass-rushing prowess the Chargers need on the defensive line.
Other scenarios to consider: 1) If Shawne Merriman doesn't return, the Chargers could land a pass-rushing specialist like veteran Adewale Ogunleye with a frontloaded three-year deal; 2) if Antonio Cromartie is out of the picture, Houston's Dunta Robinson would be an ideal replacement; and 3) if the team wants to improve the middle of its defense, it could make a run at Arizona LB Karlos Dansby.
3. What apparent needs can the Chargers afford to ignore?
There has been a lot of speculation that this will be the busiest offseason of Smith's tenure, especially if he decides to weed out knuckleheads like Merriman and Cromartie. However, he has never been one to favor sweeping changes, so he may elect to address some of his team's needs without even making a move.
The defensive line was in shambles by season's end, but Smith may not feel compelled to invest highly in a nose tackle when he has Jamal Williams, Ryon Bingham and Ogemdi Nwagbuo coming off injured-reserve. Also, Smith may resist calls to upgrade the right tackle position, opting instead to let Jeromey Clary and Brandyn Dombrowkski prove they are up to the task. Finally, Smith's search for a bolstered outside pass rush may go no farther than Antwan Applewhite and Jyles Tucker, both of whom will return after finishing the season on IR.
As many holes as this team had at season's end, Smith's top priorities will be locking up his own players such as Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and Antonio Gates. Smith has always believed in paying his players before he starts paying someone else's.
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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. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.