Free agency is upon us, and teams are already wheeling and dealing left and right. The Chargers find themselves with a lot of holes to fill this year, most glaringly at running back and defensive tackle. The releases of LaDainian Tomlinson and Jamal Williams have exacerbated these needs. Unfortunately, they've got a limited number of top draft picks to work with. As it stands, the Chargers have one pick in each round (except the 6th), and each pick is towards the end of each round. Below, I will explain why the Chargers should explore trading both Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles, to acquire more high draft picks and help fill more pressing needs.
Right now, the Chargers pick at #28 in both the first and second rounds. That means they won't get chances at the top prospects at the positions they need to fill. I've felt for a while the Chargers need to find a way to produce another first round pick, preferably without trading their other picks like AJ has done in the past. Players like Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles provide that opportunity.
There are several teams who need help at wide receiver in the middle of the first round. Jacksonville (#10), Miami (#12), San Francisco (#13), and Seattle (#14) all fit this bill. Jacksonville and Miami, while in possession of higher draft picks, are less appealing trade partners given that they are fellow AFC teams. They are also in position to draft this year's #1 WR prospect, Dez Bryant, and will probably be less likely to try and trade for a receiver. San Francisco and Seattle would be preferable, because they're NFC teams. Just for the sake of argument, I'm going to go with Seattle as the most likely trade partner, because of rumors floating that they're interested in acquiring a new wideout.
Vincent Jackson is an elite wide receiver who is in the middle of his prime. He can immediately contribute to a new team, as opposed to a rookie wide receiver that will likely take time to develop. He should be valued at least as much as a mid-first round pick. The Chargers should approach Seattle with the idea of trading Vincent for the #14 pick.
NOTE: After this post was first written, reports began to surface that Seattle is actively trying to sign Brandon Marshall to an offer sheet. Marshall has a first round tender on him, and if Seattle signed him and Denver chose not to match, then Seattle would owe the Broncos their first round draft pick, the #6 overall choice (they could not send them the #14 choice, because that pick they acquired via trade). Vincent Jackson is a better receiver than Marshall, and less of a head case (so far) and is therefore more valuable. Seattle signing away Marshall would effectively drive up the price for Jackson, so a mid-first round pick would no longer be acceptable.
If this happened, I would shift focus to the the top five picks and target one of those teams for a trade. I believe Tampa Bay, owners of the #3 pick, would be an ideal partner. Especially with Antonio Bryant leaving, they have a dearth of talent at wide receiver, and a young quarterback they are trying to build around. Most of the mock drafts I have seen project them as taking the best player available at #3 rather than trying to fill a specific need. Therefore, I think it's reasonable that they would be receptive to spending that pick to acquire an elite talent at WR to pair with Josh Freeman. With the #3 overall pick, the Chargers could take the BPA, or trade down to the mid-first round and take any of the options I outline below. Attaining the 3rd overall pick would give the Chargers even more flexibility than getting the 14th pick straight up, as well as even more mid-round picks to work with.
Darren Sproles was recently tendered with first and third round draft picks. Despite this, it's being reported that the Chargers will entertain offers for less than that. The rest of the league seems to understand that Darren is pretty valuable as a third down back, kick returner, and receiver out of the backfield. Reportedly, he was set to visit Kansas City, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Washington in free agency. Now that the Chargers have retained his rights, they should explore trading him to one of those teams for a 2nd round draft choice.
The ideal spot would be St. Louis. Again, they're an NFC team so the Chargers wouldn't have to worry about facing Sproles more than once every four years. St. Louis is clearly interested in him, as they appeared to plan on making him an offer in free agency. Most appealing about the Rams is that they possess the first pick in the second round. Therefore, the Chargers should aggressively pursue sending St. Louis Darren Sproles for their high 2nd round choice.
If both these trades came to pass, it would leave the Chargers with a multitude of options. They'd pick #14 and #28 in the first round, as well as holding the #1 and #28 picks in the second round. At the 14th spot, the Chargers would have realistic chances at both CJ Spiller should he fall a bit, and Dan Williams, the top NT prospect in the draft. If neither player was available, and there was no one else the Chargers liked at that spot, they could trade down and acquire even more picks.
At #28 the Chargers could select Jahvid Best or Ryan Matthews, or any other player they value at the spot. Then with the first pick in the second round, the Chargers could fill whatever need they didn't in the first--a second tier NT or RB prospect. With the #28 pick in the second round, they could select a wide receiver to fill out the WR corps, or another player they value at that place. If they didn't take a receiver here, they could do so in the 3rd or 4th round.
This way, the Chargers would have a wide range of options to address their most glaring needs, and would be able to re-stock key positions with young talent. As for losing Jackson and Sproles, there are significant chances neither player will be here long-term anyway. As much as we like Vincent, it seems like the team will have a difficult time signing him to a new contract after 2010. For one, he's got a plethora of legal issues which will lead to at least one suspension in 2010. The Chargers' front office does not like players who are trouble off the field. Also, if he continues to produce as he has, he will command a mammoth salary in the 2011 off-season. I cannot recall the last time the Chargers gave a mammoth salary to a player who wasn't named Philip Rivers (who took a discount to stay--Jackson probably won't). Perhaps Kris Dielman counts, but still that's only two players in 6+ years who have been given large contracts. As for signing Sproles, the team has been trying to do that for some time and hasn't been able to. If the two sides haven't been able to reach an agreement by now, it seems unlikely they ever will.
As a result, the Chargers' backfield would likely be a rookie (Spiller, Best, or Matthews) combined with a veteran acquired in free agency. The wide receiver corps would have Floyd and Naannee starting, with Buster Davis and a 2nd or 3rd round selection filling the #3 and #4 spots. Davis could return punts, and the rookie RB could return kicks.
I realize fan reaction to this will likely be similar to the news that the team wouldn't be retaining Shawne Merriman long-term--"We can't lose Jackson/Sproles, he's too valuable!" I don't believe either player is indispensable to the Chargers. Sproles is a nice luxury, but he isn't a necessity, especially with a first round running back coming in. True, Jackson is an elite wideout, but remember Rivers produced very well in 2006 when his starting WRs were Eric Parker and Keenan McCardell. The Chargers would also still have Antonio Gates. Philip is an elite QB, who should perform well so long as he has at least decent receivers at his disposal, which he would.
Despite what public perception/reaction would be, the Chargers should seriously consider trading both players, as the team would likely still be able to perform at a high level, and it would put them in a much better position for the future.