The Coast News Group
San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith watches over a team practice this season at Chargers Park. Photo by Tony Cagala

Insuring the Investment

GM says last season’s labor unrest led to influx of free agent signings this year 

SAN DIEGO — As with most any insurance policy, you don’t necessarily know why you have it until the time you need it.

And with last season’s hopes of making the playoffs falling to pieces, in part due to a slew of injuries and a lack of depth on the bench, Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has signed up for a number of insurance policies this season, investing in a number of free agent signings to prevent similar hopes from becoming dashed once again.

And following the first major injury of the season with running back Ryan Mathews breaking his collar bone on his first carry of the first preseason game this year, the insurance already looks to be paying off.

“The insurance policy is a good way to say it for exactly that reason,” Smith said. “We know who the frontliners are and we do like our frontline players, but it’s 16 games, it’s a physical sport; it’s grueling and a lot of players are going to disappear throughout the season.”

Case in point, the Chargers have loaded up on running backs this offseason, bringing in veteran Ronnie Brown and having Jackie Battle, Curtis Brinkley and Edwin Baker in the offing.

“Right now we have an injury for our frontline running back, who will not be available, possibly, by the first part of the season,” said Smith. “That will be determined in the next three weeks,” he said. “But let’s just say he’s not available in the first few games, right out of the gate, we are going to experience how well we did with our backup running backs.”

Second-year wide receiver Vincent Brown will also miss at least eight weeks following a broken ankle in the second preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. Turner has said previously that he likes where the team is at in regards to depth at the receiver position.

So far, there have been 23 free agent players brought in this season.

But both Turner and Smith say that the amassing of free agent signings aren’t reactionary to last year’s injury-plagued season.

“They’re not lessons,” Turner said. “I think every team is different and what we thought was that we got thin in some areas and there were some guys we lost in free agency and so we felt that it was time to add some things.”

Smith agreed, saying the increase wasn’t so much the lesson learned. He explained that the increase was targeted because of the circumstances of last season’s labor agreement unrest.

A lot of the agents and players were taking one-year deals and when those contracts expired at the end of the season it created a logjam of available talent, creating what Smith said was the “biggest, largest, historical value that we’ve ever seen, in my opinion, in the history of the league.”

Dante Rosario is one of those free agents signed to the team after having spent last season with the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins.

Rosario is entering his sixth season. The majority of his career has been with the Carolina Panthers.

He said the rash of free agent signings is how you drive guys to keep working hard to become better. “That feeling of knowing that there’s somebody right behind you that can step in and play that role…that’s what every team wants to create in the NFL,” he added. “And that’s what training camp is for, is to see who can play and who’s going to help the team win, and I think, that’s the whole reasoning for bringing in guys and challenging guys in their positions to make everybody better.”

Smith did, and has acknowledged since the end of last season, that he was not “the least bit happy” with himself and his decision making on the backup players.

Last year the Chargers lost six games in a row. Part of that, Smith said, was a lot of things, including player performance, but added, “Had I done a better job with backup players that were called upon — would’ve, could’ve, should’ve — as I look back…maybe that six game losing streak is turned into three.”

The Chargers finished last season 8-8 along with the Broncos and the Raiders. The Broncos won the AFC West division and made the playoffs by winning the tiebreaker series.

“My prediction this year is I think somebody in the West will have more than that number,” Smith said. “I won’t give you a number, but I think it’s not going to be eight that wins the division.”

Despite the seeming preseason spree, Smith said he won’t have a new approach to free agent signings during the season. “It’s always the same,” Smith said. “We have an extensive ready list of people that we think could help us if called upon,” he said.

That ready list will have names of players added and removed as other teams begin making cuts and players become available.

“Whatever we think can help our team or upgrade our team, we think we’ll do it. I’m always exploring that possibility,” Smith said.

While Smith wouldn’t comment on the amount of cap room the Chargers have, reports on show the team has, as of July, $2.86 million in cap space. That figure doesn’t reflect the Aug. 8 signings of offensive tackles Anthony Davis and Michael Toudouze to one-year deals.

Cap room is always under control, Smith said. “It’s priority number one when I was hired here…we always want to have enough money to do whatever we can do. That’s always controlled. Ed (Mcguire) always keeps me in check,” he added.

Smith said he always wants to know where the team is in the cap to have the flexibility to make a trade or bring in a player if they want to. “It’s something we’re always conscience of. We don’t have a large amount of cap, we will spend money. That’s Dean Spanos’ commitment. We will spend the money on the players to help us win. And if you look at our cap and you studied that through history, there’s no question that Dean Spanos is committed to giving us the money to get players.”

We’ve always had enough by design to do what we need to do, he added.