When the offseason began for the Chargers, they knew it would be nearly impossible to retain all their key free agents, especially since they had a laundry list of big names with expiring contracts. Now it is becoming more and more clear which direction the team is likely to go with some of its top players eligible to hit the open market.
ILB Stephen Cooper, who has spent his entire eight-year career in San Diego after signing as an undrafted free agent from Maine, recently said that he does not anticipate being a Charger in 2011.
"I think I'm going to have an opportunity to test the market," said Cooper, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The way we hear it, this is not a surprise considering the club's circumstances. While the 31-year-old Cooper has been a staple of the Bolts' defense since 2007, he is coming off an average season in which he missed four games due to injury and finished with just 43 tackles. He also plays a position in which the team has another significant name, Kevin Burnett, scheduled to hit free agency, as well. While the Chargers will miss the veteran in the middle of their "D," they already know they won't be able to match the offers from other suitors. It wouldn't be a shock if his former coordinator, Ron Rivera, tries to bring him to Carolina.
Meanwhile, we hear the Chargers' willingness to let Cooper walk means they will make a major push to re-sign Burnett, who is fresh off a career campaign in which he had 95 tackles, six sacks and two interceptions. Younger than his fellow inside 'backer at age 28, Burnett likely has more productive seasons ahead of him and is a very versatile presence. His price tag will almost certainly be hefty, but GM A.J. Smith appears eager to keep the UFA in San Diego for the long haul.
The Bolts have some options to replace Cooper, but the most intriguing one is Donald Butler, a third-round pick last year who missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon. The club loved Butler's potential coming out of Washington and is expected to give him every chance to win the starting job, though the potential cancellation of offseason activities would mean he'd basically be starting from scratch whenever training camp begins.