Offseason Plans Thrown for a Loop

Now that the NFLPA has decertified and the league has locked out the players, the odds have greatly increased that the NFL Draft will take place before free agency begins. That would be a big problem for the Chargers, who would be looking at holes across the board as they guess which veterans will return.

San Diego's primary needs this offseason are pretty clear: defensive end, linebacker, safety and wide receiver.

Beyond that, things get murky, especially if the NFL Draft takes place before a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

For example, San Diego's offensive line is currently one of its biggest strengths. But if Jeromey Clary and Scott Mruczkowski leave as free agents, that changes fast.

Other areas may need to be addressed in the draft to guard against free-agent movement, including quarterback (Billy Volek), tight end (Randy McMichael) and cornerback (Dante Hughes).

FS Eric Weddle
Donald Miralle/Getty
Also, with San Diego's free agents still in limbo, GM A.J. Smith will have a difficult time prioritizing his primary draft needs. Linebacker may be the team's biggest concern, but not if Smith is confident he can re-sign two or more players from a group that includes Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett, Antwan Barnes and Brandon Siler.

It is also tough to peg the severity of the needs at receiver and safety until the fates of Malcom Floyd and Eric Weddle have been decided.

So, how will Smith approach the draft if free agency has yet to begin?

Look for the Chargers to prioritize their positions in tiers. The top tier will consist of positions that need help regardless of free-agent movement, such as DE, OLB and possibly WR (it is already known Legedu Naanee will not return).

The second tier would provide depth at positions that are likely to incur some free agent losses, such as inside linebacker and safety, as both areas have three players anticipating unrestricted free agency.

A third tier would target developmental players and would likely focus upon offensive linemen and cornerbacks. A tight end or a quarterback may also sneak into this group if the value is right.

Regardless, the Chargers hope free agency begins in the next couple weeks so that a few of these question marks can be resolved prior to the draft. If San Diego can lock up even a few of its core players before that last weekend in April (like, for example, Floyd, Weddle and Clary) it would make Smith's task much easier.

Otherwise, the Chargers will be forced into a high-stakes guessing game that will make or break the 2011 season.

Talk about the latest news regarding the CBA negotiations in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His work has been published by NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports.

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