Free Agency: Cam Thomas

It was an up-and-down year for Cam Thomas. He began the season atop the depth chart for the first time in his career, was eventually supplanted by Sean Lissemore, then finished the season strong playing second string. He will become a free agent in March and the Chargers must decide if Thomas is part of the future on the defensive line.

Cam Thomas could not have scripted a better beginning to the 2013 season. He was an opening-day starter and intercepted a pass San Diego's first play from scrimmage (thanks to a ball batted into the air by Jarret Johnson).

Thomas struggled as the year progressed. He was unable to hold his ground at the point of attack, allowing offensive linemen to move the line of scrimmage and get out to San Diego's linebackers. He made Chargers fans long for the good ol' days when Jamal Williams and John Parrella were anchoring the middle of the defense, as fans rained down chants of, "You can't run!"

San Diego's defense was historically bad through the first 12 games, ranking last against the run in DVOA (a stat that considers strength of opposition, down, distance, score, etc.).

NT Cam Thomas
C. Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports
After Week 12, the Chargers made a change. Sean Lissemore, acquired in a preseason trade with the Dallas Cowboys for a 2015 seventh-round pick, took over the starting nose tackle job and Thomas spelled him as games progressed. The move paid immediate dividends as the Chargers won their final four regular season game and streaked into the playoffs, allowing an average of less than 18 points and 80 rushing yards during those contests.

Lissemore injured his shoulder late in the season and was unable to play in San Diego's two playoff games. Thomas stepped up to the challenge, posting two tackles and a sack in the win over the Cincinnati Bengals before being held in check as the Chargers were bounced in Denver.

Thomas finished his contract season by starting 10 of 16 games, finishing with 23 tackles, four TFLs and three quarterback pressures.

Although Thomas proved to be in over his head as a starting nose tackle, he played better late in the season. He benefited from playing behind Lissemore, a strong run defender who helped the defense get into more manageable down-and-distance situations. The change allowed Thomas to play fewer snaps, keeping him fresh and helping him maximize his snaps. It also motivated Thomas, who went unchallenged for most of the season after the Chargers parted ways with Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay last offseason.

If the Chargers can get Thomas back on a manageable reserve contract, the team should bring him back. San Diego already has Lissemore under contract for three more seasons with modest base salaries of $1 million (2014), $1.25 million (2015) and $1.75 million (2016). If the Chargers can land Thomas with a similar pact -- in the neighborhood of three years and $6 million -- it would be an obvious win.

The Chargers have invested a lot in Thomas since trading up to acquire him in the 2010 draft. It makes sense to allow that investment to pay dividends in San Diego, so long as the money is right. But if Thomas finds another team that sees him as a starting nose tackle (and is willing to pay him like one), Tom Telesco will have no choice but to let Thomas walk and pursue his replacement on draft day.

Should the Chargers bring back Cam Thomas? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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