This is the biggest offseason of A.J. Smith's career. The Chargers General Manager survived another disappointing regular season with his job intact, but he's squarely on the hot seat along with his trusty coach, Norv Turner.
Smith isn't a popular figure. It's partly due to his prickly personality. It's partly because the "Lord of no rings" is such a catchy nickname. It's partly due to the fact he hasn't drafted well lately, after going on a run of hits early in his career. (If Smith was a band, he'd be the Counting Crows.)
Despite losing Vincent Jackson this offseason, we believe Smith is starting to get his mojo back this offseason. He's made a number of low-risk, high-reward signings. He avoided a potential collapse of his offensive line. He did it by making moves in bulk. Let's take a look at his strong month.
The big bargain
Jared Gaither was the best free agent tackle available this offseason. He played five nearly flawless games to end last season at a premium position. Smith brought him back for $24 million over four years, which is worth the risk considering Gaither's upside.
Keeping your own
The Chargers were able to keep a lot of core players without spending too much. Defensive end Luis Castillo, defensive tackle Antonio Garay, center Nick Hardwick and tight end Randy McMichael were among the veterans to return at low prices. Smith fortified Philip Rivers' protection.
Free agents in volume
"Iâm not changing on one thing: I do not believe in paying a couple of guys huge salaries. I just do not believe in $100-million free agents," Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Instead, Smith signed a number of promising players at mid-level or bargain basement costs. Here's a quick list, in rough order of expected impact: Wideout Robert Meachem, linebacker Jarrett Johnson, wide receiver Eddie Royal, fullback Le'Ron McClain, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, tight end Donte Rosario, safety Atari Bigby and linebacker Demorrio Williams.
Are all these guys going to pan out? Of course not. But the group reminds me a little of the massive amount of free agents that the New England Patriots signed after the 2000 season. They are mostly guys with great "football character." They add depth to a team that needs it. They improved special teams and make up for the loss of Jackson.
The AFC West will be more competitive than ever this year. Peyton Manning makes the Denver Broncos the favorites, and the Chiefs quietly are primed to rebound. Smith needed to have a big offseason and he's quietly off to a great start.