Franchise left tackles don't come around every day. Neither do No. 1 wide receivers. So why are the Chargers acting so lax regarding the contracts of OLT Marcus McNeill and WR Vincent Jackson? Your guess is as good as mine.
With the team's minicamp getting under way this week, McNeill, Jackson, WR Malcom Floyd and OLB Shawne Merriman — San Diego's four remaining unsigned restricted free agents — are all conspicuous by their absence. None has agreed to his one-year tender offer, and it doesn't sound like any of them is planning to do so in the immediate future.
That's because each one believes he has done enough to earn a long-term deal, which brings with it both financial and job security. After all, this quartet has been with the club for a number of years, helping the Chargers become the dominant team in the AFC West. But that hasn't swayed the opinion of GM A.J. Smith one bit. He apparently placed a lock on the franchise's proverbial wallet at the beginning of the offseason, then threw away the key.
Smith's reasons for being careful with the Spanos family's money are understandable. For one, the current CBA situation and possibility of a 2011 lockout have caused many teams to think twice about handing out lucrative contracts containing loads of guaranteed dollars. Obviously, no owner wants to be doling out hefty paychecks next season if there's no football. Also, the Chargers have another group of integral players set to become free agents a year from now, including TE Antonio Gates, ILB Stephen Cooper and FS Eric Weddle. If the Bolts spend all their money now, they'll risk being strapped for cash when this trio is due to hit the market.
But while Smith's logic for holding off on long-term deals may make sense, it doesn't make it the best course of action when it comes to negotiating with two of San Diego's premier players. One look at the GM's track record shows that he enjoys playing hardball with free agents, a strategy that has worked frequently. However, McNeill and Jackson aren't just any free agents, and telling them that they're not worthy of extensions could wind up being a major mistake.
Since coming into the league in 2006, McNeill has been a stalwart at left tackle for an extremely effective offense, making two Pro Bowls and keeping QB Philip Rivers on his feet. An upper-echelon player at one of the toughest positions to fill, he has been an admirable blind-side protector for his $92 million quarterback, and at just 26 years old, he has many terrific seasons still ahead of him. Considering his importance to the squad and the significant drop-off behind him on the depth chart, McNeill is more than deserving of a multiyear deal.
Jackson, meanwhile, is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has scored 16 touchdowns over the past two years. A giant at 6-5, 230 pounds, he's both a deep threat and a quality intermediate target, not to mention Rivers' favorite wideout. Just hitting his prime at age 27, Jackson has established himself as the anchor of this receiving corps. Some off-field driving incidents could result in a suspension to begin 2010, but that's the only baggage he carries. Without him, the Bolts' offense almost surely would take a major step back.
By not agreeing to contract extensions with this pair prior to ’10, Smith is risking one or both players sitting out a major chunk of the regular season, especially if he rescinds their RFA tenders, which he can do if they don't sign by June 15. Such a move would result in major pay cuts for McNeill and Jackson this season, and it very possibly could sour them enough on the organization that they decide to sign elsewhere after becoming UFAs next year. Is that potential outcome really worth playing hardball over?
Smith has made a slew of good decisions during his seven-year tenure as the Bolts' general manager — one look at the Chargers' record over that span is proof. Even choosing not to offer long-term contracts to Floyd and Merriman is probably the intelligent tactic, as both players have sufficient question marks to make them gambles. Without Smith, San Diego likely wouldn't be the dominant franchise it has been for the better part of six years.
This time, though, the savvy GM is showing poor judgment. McNeill and Jackson are two of the primary reasons for the team's offensive success, and there's no sensible explanation as to why they shouldn't remain in San Diego for years to come. The club's window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl already was starting to close, but it very well might slam shut if these two exit the equation.
There are times to play tough, and then there are times to cave in. If Smith opts to stick to his guns in this instance, Chargers fans have reason to be concerned about the future.
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