Chargers Free Agency 2011: Defense

For a team once considered among the league’s deepest and most talented squads, the Chargers offseason will go a long way in determining if that perception can be maintained in the future. With a staggering 28 Bolts set to hit free agency in early March, the organization has a plethora of important decisions to make concerning the team’s future at several key positions.

The offseason has been underway for a few weeks now in San Diego, yet still there has been no word from General Manager A.J. Smith to the press on which way he is leaning considering each individual free agent. The positions in question range from right tackle and wide receiver on offense to safety, corner, defensive end, and inside linebacker on defense as the Chargers enter this transition period for their current roster.

Defense wins championships and with two of the league’s best defenses set to square off in Super Bowl XLV on February 6th, it would be smart for the Bolts to begin building on that side of the ball.

Defensive line by committee was the slogan during Ron Rivera’s time in San Diego and he refined that tactic to an art form. Still the Bolts could use some help at defensive end and with both Travis Johnson and Jacques Cesaire having expiring contracts, the team will be scouring the land for potential replacements this offseason.

Although Haloti Ngata is a big ticket free agent poised to hit the open market that could make a sexy acquisition for the Bolts, the draft seems the most likely avenue for finding a day one starter opposite Luis Castillo on the Bolts front line as Vaughn Martin is still struggling to crack the rotation. Names like Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborn of Iowa, J.J. Watt in Wisconsin, and Stephen Paea from Oregon State lead the list of candidates in this April’s festivities. A lot can happen from now until the draft, but at the 18th selection, the Bolts should in all likelihood see at least one of those four names remaining on the board.

Competition was clearly the idea behind bringing nearly every inside linebacker on the team into the 2010 season with just one year remaining on their contracts. On paper, this thought was fundamentally sound from Smith as he tried to evoke some inspired play out of each player, but the only thing that’s become of that plan in the end is a muddled mess of ‘what now’.

Veteran Stephen Cooper is 31 and saw a decline in his year over year numbers this season mostly due to some nagging injuries forcing him to miss a handful of games. That has to be taken into consideration when discussing a deal as the Bolts can’t count on him to stay healthy week after week.

Brandon Siler is only 25 and has been a flashy player for the team in spurts, but consistency is the main ingredient missing from his game. His game fits the Bolts’ scheme perfectly, but he just hasn’t shown enough repetitive success to instill any true confidence as a starter. A short-term deal seems the most likely route here if the team looks to re-sign Siler and keep developing his skills moving forward.

At 28, Kevin Burnett was one of those sneaky signings by Smith two years ago that didn’t overwhelm anyone, but really proved to be a sound investment. 2010 was a breakout year for him starting all 16 games and finishing second on the club with 95 total tackles. His price may have been elevated a bit by such a productive season, but Burnett will likely still come cheap in comparison to others at his position throughout the league.

Let’s not forget about Donald Butler who missed the entire season due to an Achilles injury in early August. The jury remains out on him and just what he can bring to this team in 2011 as the Bolts will undoubtedly be banking on a lot from the youngster when he steps into the rotation in training camp.

At the back level of the defense, the secondary was quite solid in 2010 as the league’s top unit against the pass. Eric Weddle actually led the Bolts in tackles on the year and had himself a huge year which is going to make his contract negotiations all that much more difficult. Defensive IQ is inarguable with Weddle which makes him all the more valuable to this team and he is one player that this club cannot afford to lose in the offseason despite the price tag. As the only expiring contract among the corners and safeties on the Chargers’ roster, Weddle should be a top priority for Smith to get re-signed as soon as possible.

The old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ seems to apply to this Chargers defense as the only real vulnerability at times appeared to be up front against more physical running teams. If the Bolts can add another piece to their defensive line and perhaps insert one or two innocuous pieces via free agency, there is no reason that this defense can’t be ranked among the league’s best for a second season in a row after 2011.

That’s just one side of the ball however. Be sure to check back later in the week for an assessment of where the offense needs to focus from a personnel perspective.

Now let’s hear from you. What areas of the defense do you feel are the biggest needs for the Chargers as they look toward 2011? Which free agents on the defensive side of the ball do you believe are the top priorities for the team and why? Can the Chargers continue their statistical dominance as a defense in 2011 or was this past season just an aberration? How would you assess the team’s draft needs defensively? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

January 27, 2011

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