For the purposes of this article I'm going to call the modern Chargers history 2003-Present. 2003 is when Chargers GM John Butler passed away and A.J. Smith took over. I'm not privy to the exact moment when A.J. Smith started calling the shots, so I'm going to assume that the entire 2003 offseason was under his control, however I'll freely admit that some of the acquisitions may have been players that Butler preferred.
My purpose here is to examine what the Chargers have done in free agency. I want to look for any patterns that have emerged or any changes that have taken place. I want to give context to moves in their time period and see if there is anything that can help us understand the free agent moves we saw this year.
Before we get started I want to disclose some of my personal preferences regarding free agency. I'm not a big proponent of trying to signing a lot of free agents to make up a roster. Most free agents have gone past their usefulness with their former club and most likely have reputations that overshadow their current talent level. In almost every sports business free agents will tend to get paid based on well they used to perform as opposed to how well they are going to perform. My preference would be to build as much as possible via the draft and use free agency as a supplement to patch up any areas where other attempts to them have failed.
After the jump I'll give my year-by-year analysis of each of the Chargers free agent classes starting in 2003.
The first thing I noticed as I compiled this list is that that each free agent could be divided into a category. They were either brought in to be a starter, competition for a starter (either for the current year or in future years), roster depth or as an emergency fill in due to injury issues. So each player is labeled with Starter, Competition, Depth or Emergency.
These are obviously the signings of a team that needs an identity and is building. They are trying to establish an identity in the passing game by signing one of the premier free agents on the market in WR David Boston. At the same time they are trying to establish an identity in the run game by bringing in a Pro Bowl FB in Lorenzo Neal and former Cowboys OG Solomon Page. They also brought in Lassiter to play safety alongside 2nd year CB Quentin Jammer and 3 rookies in Drayton Florence, Terrence Kiel and Sammy Davis. This was also the last hurrah for the 4-3 defense. The team had prototypical 4-3 DLs in Marcellus Wiley, Raylee Johnson, Adrian Dingle and Jason Fisk. So Wade Phillips made due with that talent and they added Leverette and Salave'a as one year rentals to help supplement since the 4-3 requires lots of DL, but would be gone soon. Even the signing of Leon Johnson has the scent of a team still building since KR aren't hard to find in the draft, but are also a bit of a luxury to spend picks on. While this free agent class isn't necessarily a sign that the team wouldn't be players in the free agent market once they had more talent; it definitely requires the caveat that the roster had many holes to fill and free agent acquisitions were necessary to make the team competitive. Of course, there is also the possibility that A.J. Smith wasn't 100% in charge yet and would have done things differently. From a production standpoint this class did not do great. While most were useful for the disappointing 2003 season, most were gone soon after with only Lorenzo Neal becoming a mainstay of the franchise.
This free agent class was nowhere near as flashy as the 2003. In hindsight Foley, Godfrey and Goff make for a pretty nice class of starters that helped the Chargers to playoff berths, however at the time they were signed people were grumbling about the Chargers not bringing a higher caliber of players. Foley and Goff seemed like they were just ordinary players on some abysmally horrific Bengals teams and Godfrey seemed past his prime. However, this was a team that just needed to bring in a bunch of players to fill holes. The Chargers were moving to the 3-4 and only had 1 returning LB capable of starting on outside (Ben Leber) and no one that could play inside opposite Donnie Edwards. Foley and Godfrey fit those roles perfectly. The previous year's Solomon Page signing hadn't worked out and there were no young OGs ready to start so getting a starting RG was a priority. Safety was still a constant problem and the Chargers already had a journeyman as a starter in Jerry Wilson so a warm body with NFL experience in Clinton Hart was needed. The Chargers also had an opening at RT, so former Panthers backup Leander Jordan was brought in, but rookie Shane Olivea beat him out. Again, the theme of the signings seems to be getting guys to plug in obvious holes. These aren't upgrades on guys currently on the roster, but necessary acquisitions needed just to field a team.
The 2005 free agent class seems more like the one's we are used to. This Chargers team had a lot of young starters on it. Dielman, Hardwick and Olivea seemed like mainstays for the offensive line to go with veterans Roman Oben and Mike Goff. The Chargers were set at the skill positions with Brees and Rivers as QBs, a 3 deep running back corps with Tomlinson, Michael Turner and new addition Darren Sproles, a developing superstar at TE in Antonio Gates and veteran backup TE Justin Peele and the veterans Lorenzo Neal, Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker backed up by youngsters Andrew Pinnock, Vincent Jackson and Kassim Osgood. On defense they had two young defensive ends Igor Olshansky and rookie Luis Castillo backed up by former starter Jacques Cesaire, an exceptionally deep LB corps with Steve Foley, Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey, Ben Leber, and future starters Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper backing up. The big question mark was the secondary. So, A.J. tried to give it shot in the arm with the versatile Bhawoh Jue who could compete with Jerry Wilson for a safety spot or replace the struggling Drayton Florence and Sammy Davis. Apparently Quentin Jammer and Terrence Kiel had established themselves as steady starters and didn't need competition. In hindsight, this looks like a solid roster with a good mix of young and old. They just couldn't get it done when games counted, but I'm not sure how free agency could have changed that. It would have been hard to get any upgrades that way.
2006 seems like just a continuation of the 2005 one. Sure, they'd lost a QB in the offseason, but they planned to replace him with recent draftee Charlie Whitehurst and eventually found a more suitable solution via a trade for veteran Billy Volek. They also lost OLB Ben Leber, but had depth at the position with 2005 1st round pick ready to replace him. They would also lose OLB Steve Foley, but that came too late to address in free agency and their extensive LB depth covered that too as Shaun Phillips was ready to step in. Roman Oben's injuries turned out to be severe enough to require a replacement, but 2nd round pick Marcus McNeil was up to the challenge. In free agency the Chargers continued to try and address the safety position by adding another veteran, albeit a more accomplished one, with Marlon McCree. They also had to replace aging veteran C Bob Hallen and the departing backup TE Justin Peele so they signed Cory Withrow and Brandon Manumaleuna. Every other position had the starter returning with most of the being young and developing or solid veterans. There's only so much you can do when you have a solid core group of guys and are drafting people that replace injured and departing starters.
The next 3 years followed the same pattern as 2005 and 2006. In 2007 they signed basically no one, except re-signing Kris Dielman, which may be the biggest free agent acquisition of A.J.'s Charger career. In 2008 the only acquisitions were backups Derek Smith, Jeremy Newberry and L.J. Shelton as well as some emergency acquisitions. 2009 featured a part time starter in Kevin Burnett as well as some emergency acquisitions.
Looking back there are a couple of things to see here. Looking at his first few years on the job it's obvious that A.J. is not afraid of the free agent market. He made several key acquisitions during his first years on the job. When the Chargers have had holes they've been able to acquire free agents to fill in the gaps. For the most part though it's obvious that the plan is to use the draft to fill immediate holes with high draft picks and develop other players to fill holes that will open up a couple of years after those developing players are drafted. However, it's not like A.J. is forcing 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks to fill key roles or start for the team in order to avoid free agents. The plans for developing players are carefully orchestrated and players that don't adapt to their starting roles are replaced usually within a year.
Obviously, a team like the Chargers who has won division titles 5 of the last 6 years, appeared in a conference championship game and won 13 or more games twice in the past 2 of the last 4 years isn't hurting for talent. And for the most part there hasn't been a position since probably 2005 where the Chargers were one of the worst equipped in the league. They also don't ever end up with too many guys they have to release or trade for contract issues, like the Cardinals did recently with Anquan Boldin, or let walk due to cap space, like the Panthers just did with Julius Peppers. It just doesn't seem like the Chargers are being hurt by their recent lack of interest in free agency and, personally, I don't see any reason to shift their current strategy.