Much of the talk in the league this offseason will undoubtedly have to do with the labor agreement and just how that issue is resolved, but let’s be positive. Assuming that a deal gets done and the league will continue on as it has over the past two decades in the free agency era, just what kind of players should the Bolts have their sights on for 2011?
Clearly the team has some personnel work to do considering their own General Manager A.J. Smith has publicly admitted that the squad has lost a step. According to Smith: "We're not an elite team; we've lost that. We were second in our division last year and out of it. We have to earn back that status we had. Because it's gone; it really is. I deal in facts, man."
What the ‘facts’ said in terms of numbers last season was that the Chargers should have been unbeatable ranking number one in both total offense and defense. The main focus this offseason will undoubtedly be on depth with 28 unrestricted free agents currently on the Bolts’ roster. The potential turnover could be tremendous on both sides of the ball, but the defensive side in particular has two areas ranking near the top of the needs list.
Beginning at defensive end, the Chargers rotation up front performed admirably in 2010, but the difference between admirable and excellent could end up being one or two victories when all’s said and done. San Diego is clearly undergoing a changing of the guard with aging veterans like Jacques Cesaire, Travis Johnson, and even Luis Castillo appearing to slow down a bit over the past year.
This year’s free agent class could offer some real help for a 3-4 team like the Bolts with players experienced in the scheme hitting the market. One player just happened to help his side win the Lombardi Trophy this past season in Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. His disruptive presence up front helped to aid the development of their young nose tackle B.J. Raji and gave the team a reliable run stuffer as well. The only drawback in landing Jenkins is that with the Baltimore Ravens slapping the franchise tag on their beast up front Haloti Ngata, Jenkins will likely be the most sought after free agent at his position.
There are however some mid-range models available for 3-4 depth as Alan Branch and Gabe Watson are set to become free agents. Both are former Michigan Wolverines and Arizona Cardinals ironically enough, but these two are still young at 26 and 27 respectively with plenty of upside growth left untapped. Each of them possesses the versatility to slide along the defensive front and play nearly any position in the 3-4 alignment.
In the defensive backfield, obviously re-signing Eric Weddle is priority number one for the team, but assuming they are able to do that without any issues, the Bolts still need at least one more solid contributor at the other safety spot. Many (myself included) thought that Steve Gregory would be able to hold down that position this past season, but a mid-year suspension derailed his rhythm and really kept him from developing into a full-time starter. Paul Oliver is also an expiring contract for the Chargers and it would be a big stretch to anoint him as the starter opposite Weddle in 2011.
There are some very real possibilities floating around on the market now thanks to some prudent personnel moves by NFL teams with their eyes on the bottom line in this uncertain environment. A one-time defensive player of the year award winner in safety Bob Sanders was reluctantly let go by the Indianapolis Colts last week and the St. Louis Rams did the same to their own difference maker on defense Oshiomogho (O.J.) Atogwe.
Injuries have plagued Sanders’ career as he has played in just 48 total games while missing 64 during his seven year career. When healthy however, there is no doubt that Sanders is a missile with legs and a definite impact player in any defensive backfield. Atogwe hasn’t had quite the laundry list of ailments as Sanders, but he too has suffered his fair share of physical issues during his NFL stint.
When it comes to preference between these two, Atogwe seems like more of a safe bet even though both are 29 years old and have had injury concerns along the way. Placing the former Stanford Cardinal safety in the secondary with Weddle would give the Bolts a difficult tandem to throw over the top on in 2011.
GM Smith doesn’t always like to dip his toes in the free agent market, but the price tag should be relatively reasonable for the services of any of these players and would definitely be an upgrade in an area of need. The draft is still a very real possibility for trying to find help on either the defensive line or secondary, but proven free agents are what this team needs to get over the hump. The Bolts should be reloading rather than rebuilding in the prime years of both Philip Rivers’ and Antonio Gates’ respective careers.
Now let’s hear your input. Do you agree with GM Smith that the Bolts have lost their stigma as one of the league’s most talented teams or is this just a blip on the radar? Would a player like Cullen Jenkins fit well into the Chargers defense or would you prefer a less expensive player like Alan Branch or Gabe Watson? Do you feel that either Bob Sanders or O.J. Atogwe is capable of staying healthy and helping the Bolts secondary or are they just too risky to sign? Is proven veteran leadership via free agency the best way to get this team moving toward its ultimate goal or should building in the draft be the main emphasis? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!
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