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Why AJ Smith should, and will, change tactics...THIS season

So AJ has been notorious for many things, one of which is his unwillingness to do anything for than dabble in the NFL's free agency period.  History has shown that AJ prefers to take Undrafted Free Agents (UDFA's) and has found some players that teams decided not to draft that have made some solid contributions.  A lot of these players become the fan favorites because, let's face it, everyone loves an underdog story.

Anyhow, there are several reasons that make me believe that AJ should, and will, make an about-face this season and do exactly the opposite of his normal trend.  I expect we will see hardly any UDFA's picked up by the Bolts, and more veteran Free Agents than we are used to here in San Diego.  Join me after the jump to see my reasoning...

Why the Charger's shouldn't join the fight for the UDFA's

Normally every season there is a huge signing frenzy immediately following the final draft pick of the NFL draft.  The Chargers have been one of the biggest teams playing in this, and often sign upwards of 10 UDFA's every season.  Some of these guys are training camp fodder, but often there are players who will break through and actually get some playing time during the season, like WR Seyi Ajirotutu.  I think the reason for this is that the Chargers scouting department is very thorough in their scouting of any and all potential prospects, not just the top 200 or so.  This enables the Chargers to know very well who is the best of the players that are left after the draft, and to make those decisions quickly in the hectic UDFA signing period following the draft.  This offseason is different, however:

  • Other teams have had plenty of time to view all of the film on the players in the UDFA pool, and have likely picked out their favorites.  The amount of time all teams have had has severely leveled the field in this area.  There will be a lot more teams involved in this period than usual, and they will all be much more well researched than usual.
  • The time between the moment an UDFA signs and the moment that cuts start in camp this season will be a much smaller window than in years past.  The chances of an UDFA making a roster are much smaller than usual this year, and these UDFA's are one of the biggest victims of this lockout in my opinion.  They almost don't even have a chance.  All of the coaches attention in camp is going to be bringing the veterans back up to speed, teaching the drafted rookies since they are mostly guaranteed to make the team, and the UDFA rookies will get what is left...which is not much.
  • There are some recognizable names out there on the UDFA lists, and those are going to be the guys in highest demand.  Guys like CB Kendric Burney, DB Deunta Williams, DT Ian Williams, LB Mark Herzlich, RB Derrick Locke, and RB Noel Devine are all recognizable names if you have been watching college football the last few years.  Even players like those guys have severely diminished chances of making a roster because of the lack of Offseason Training Activities (OTA's) to bring them up to speed.

Why the Chargers should compete in the veteran free agent market

According to La Canfora's list of Free Agents, I counted roughly 210 unrestricted free agents this offseason.  I count 5 of those as Franchise players, taking the total down to 205.  We still don't know the rules in the new CBA for restricted free agency, so for argument's sake, I will assume that all RFA players will remain restricted.

  • The Charger's first priority should be to bring back some of their own players that are considered free agents: Weddle, Burnett, Tolbert, Barnes, Floyd, Volek, and Siler.  Sproles would be nice to bring back as well if the price is right. 
  • There are going to be some real bargains in free agency after the initial rush as died down.  There is going to be a mad rush of teams for high profile players like Nnamdi Asomugha, Aubrayo Franklin, Cullen Jenkins, Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice, etc.  In that initial rush, there will be big money thrown around and at the end of it you could see some real "bargains" for second-tier guys that may slip through the cracks in the initial rush.  For example, players like WR James Jones, WR Lance Moore, and LB Takeo Spikes could find themselves without teams after several days of free agency while most teams are courting the higher profile free agents.  It would not surprise me at all if AJ used all of the attention on the high profile FA's as cover for making his own acquisitions on some of the less high-profile guys.
  • Keep in mind, all of these guys that are UFA's have been free agents all offseason.  They haven't been able to associate themselves with a team, and the majority still don't know where they will be playing football in 2011.  Some of these guys might be willing to sign earlier than you would think, and their agents might press them to take an offer before all of the money is spent.
  • Veterans are going to be more able to contribute immediately than rookies.  Even if it is a new team, NFL defenses are much more complicated than college defenses, and the veterans will already be used to the increased playing speed of the NFL.  Less adjustment required, more immediate contribution on the field.  Additionally, if Manusky brought in a guy that played in his defense last season, that's another guy that can be the coach on the field in practice (and games) keeping the other players in line until everyone is caught up with Manusky's scheme.
  • For those of you that say AJ would never do this, he has already started.  SS Bob Sanders will be a Charger next season, and I expect to see more FA signings to follow after the new CBA.

So there you have it.  I think if there was any season for AJ to make a big splash (compared to what he usually does) in free agency, then this is it.  That doesn't mean that he should go out and sign Nnamdi, it means he should go out and find the best deals that he can in Free Agency that will add experienced depth to a team that is making a youth movement at several positions.

I fully expect that the AJ of old will return back when the offseason returns to normal, though.  He's just too happy taking UDFA's and making them stick.  It's kind of like the feather in his hat...if he wore one.