There is no question San Diego has lost more personnel than it has gained as it attempts to rebound from a shocking playoff loss and stay among the elite teams in the AFC. Many Chargers fans worry the team has taken a step backward and could lose its grip as the four-time defending AFC West champion.
Among the departed: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson (cut and signed with the Jets), cornerback Antonio Cromartie (traded to the Jets), special-teams ace Kassim Osgood (free agent/Jacksonville), defensive tackle Jamal Williams (cut, signed with Denver) and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (free agent/Chicago).
I don’t think the losses are as devastating as they appear on paper and San Diego will not take a dramatic step backward. With the right moves in the rest of the offseason, I think the Chargers will reaffirm themselves as the top team in the AFC West. Here’s why:
All of the players who left are replaceable: None of the players who left were top-level performers on last year’s 13-3 team.
Tomlinson is a legend and will be missed, but his performance last year was not memorable. He had a career-low 730 yards, he didn’t have a 100-yard rushing game and the Chargers were ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing. An upgrade was needed.
Cromartie was a Pro Bowl player earlier in his career because he was an interception magnet. However, his interceptions have declined dramatically, he had issues in coverage and he was a major liability in the run game.
Third-year pro Antoine Cason will not be a big downgrade from Cromartie in coverage and he should help in ways Cromartie didn’t. Cason, the Chargers’ top pick in 2008, is a smart player who is trusted by his teammates. He is a ball hawk and doesn’t shy from run support. He has some work to do, but he won’t be a liability.
Williams missed all but one game last season with a triceps injury. The Chargers were moving on anyway.
Osgood will be missed on special teams, but his departure isn’t a devastating blow. He was a very good role player, but became too expensive for the Chargers to keep. It's time for another player to step up and become a difference-maker on special teams. The Chargers will survive this loss.
Manumaleuna is a fine blocking tight end, but he is not a player San Diego will be lost without. He was a role player.
The team is keeping its best players: Many San Diego fans complained the Chargers haven’t been active in free agency. That is not accurate. The team has been very aggressive -- in keeping its own players. No team had as many key decisions to make in restricted free agency.
In the end, San Diego put the high tender of first- and third-round picks on receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill and running back/return man Darren Sproles.
Unlike the group of players who left, these five players are essential to the team’s future success. San Diego made the right decision to make it virtually impossible for another team to sign any of these players.
The team is prepared to improve in the draft: The Chargers will be adding new talent this year.
San Diego’s top two pressing needs are nose tackle and running back. San Diego is in position to find quality new starters in the draft at both positions.
In one of the shrewdest offseason moves, San Diego acquired the No. 40 pick in the draft when it traded No. 3 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to Seattle. San Diego gave up the No. 60 pick. It also got Seattle’s third-round pick next year.
San Diego now has the No. 28 and No. 40 picks in this month’s draft, giving it great drafting power. Both the nose tackle and running back classes are deep, so San Diego should get two good players. The additional picks also give the Chargers greater flexibility. They could decide to package the picks and move up in the first round to get a top nose tackle or running back.
No matter what happens, the Chargers will get better through the draft. By the time the 2010 season starts, San Diego will be just as good as it was at the end of 2009.