The Lowdown: Chargers Free Agency Plan

The NFL opens its 2003 veteran free agency lottery Friday when the signing period begins at 12:01 a.m. At that time, teams can start signing any of the dozens of players who enter this offseason without a contract. With all NFL teams having to be under the $75.007 million salary cap figure for the 2003 season by 4 PM ET later today, teams around the league are busy paring their rosters.

The list includes the current Super Bowl MVP, safety Dexter Jackson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and several other defensive backs who Chargers fans are dying for the team to make millionaires. David Boston the elite among wide receivers who will hit free agency tops the list and several other wide outs will be on the radar of potential millionaires. Hey, it's not their money.

This year, the first day of free agency will mark the celebrated exits of several key Chargers players, who have priced themselves out of the market in San Diego including Rodney Harrison, Fred McCrary, Alex Molden, Ed Ellis and Terrell Fletcher.

In 2001, cornerback Alex Molden received a six year deal worth $16.1 million. Molden wound up missing most of the 2001 season with an ankle injury and was part of the problem that led to the Chargers ranking last in the league in pass defense.

In 1998, offensive tackle John Jackson received a six-year, $26.55 million contract from the San Diego Chargers. It set an NFL record for largest for an offensive lineman. Jackson, a good, but hardly great player, spent only two seasons in San Diego, before ending his career in 2001 as a backup for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Asked at the time about Jackson's contract, former Steelers director of football operations Tom Donahoe said: "You knew there were going to be some things (in free agency) that were outrageous, but not to this degree. Right now, it is a little bit crazy, but at some point, it will settle down."

Pittsburgh linebacker Chad Brown left for Seattle in 1997 after the Seahawks had brought him and his wife to town on a private jet, sat him down in a conference room and slid a check across the table that read, 'Pay To the Order of Chad Brown, $7,000,000.00.' The contract totaled $24 million for six years. No linebacker had ever been paid more money prior to that day.

In 1998, wide receiver Yancey Thigpen signed with the Tennessee Titans, getting a five-year, $21 million contract with a $5.25 million signing bonus. After almost non-stop negotiating for 24 hours, the Titans and Thigpen agreed to the deal, the largest for a wide receiver in NFL history at the time. It was the day after the start of the signing period.

In 1999, the Jacksonville Jaguars made sure they were the first to ring agent Leigh Steinberg's cell phone soon after midnight. They struck quickly and paid defensive back Carnell Lake a ransom of $18 million over four years, with a $5 million signing bonus. The contract was the second-largest for a defensive back at the time. Eventually, it helped collapse the Jaguars' salary cap.

Only Chad Brown, who tore up the deal long before it expired and signed a new one, remains with the team that signed him. Thigpen and Lake were out of football before the 2001 season.

With such salary-cap disasters in mind, you shouldn't expect quick action by the Chargers or most of the other 31 teams in the league this year. When the clock strikes midnight, Chargers General Manager John Butler won't be calling Steinberg or anyone else. "I'll be in bed," he said.

The Chargers will attempt to preach patience in all facets of their operations, especially player acquisition something they are not familiar with of recent. In 2002 they had already signed two players to five year deals by March 7th; one has already restructured presumably to stay with the team, Cory Raymer.

In 2001 they signed five players before March 9th, including three players to six year deals and one to a five year deal. Two of the five are already gone, Ellis and Molden and one has already restructured, Doug Flutie, while yet another is being considered for a move to a safety spot, Ryan McNeil.

They will play the free agency game this year, but they won't jump in the pool without testing the water and knowing where they might land. Keep n mind the period they took to evaluate their own personnel and you get the picture. Everything must be deliberate now. The Draft is on the horizon and what they do now will set the tone.

Often, signing expensive players just isn't worth it.

Steinberg, who has represented some of the biggest stars in the NFL, said truly great players rarely reach free agency.

"Teams preemptively sign their superstars to long-term contracts prior to free agency," he said.

As a result, decreased supply increases a good or average player's market value.

"What happens is good, but not great, players sign great contracts," Steinberg said. "The scarcity of talent forces teams into a competitive, auction-type bidding and creates often irrational contract results."

They will surely investigate the free-agent safeties, in particular, Jackson and Sammy Knight of the New Orleans Saints, but they will be careful not to overpay.

In the first days of free agency, players will demand a premium price. Jackson's agent, Peter Schaffer, said the Super Bowl may increase his client's price, but he believes that Jackson would have scored big, anyway.

"It alerted the fans because he was toiling in blue-collar anonymity," Schaffer said. "But in my conversations with NFL teams, they had already rated him at a high level."

Schaffer said the Buccaneers want to re-sign Jackson.

"We will endeavor to work with them as hard as we can," he said.

But he added, "I like to think of him as being the next Larry Brown."

One more thought from Schaffer: "He would be perfect for Chargers."

Maybe. But if the Chargers like him well enough to talk to him, they'll wait to see where his market surfaces before showing their cards.

Other safeties for the Chargers to eventually consider are Chad Cota of the St. Louis Rams, Keion Carpenter of the Atlanta Falcons and Earl Little of the Cleveland Browns. They might end up signing less expensive contracts that what Jackson will get.

They will also look at wide receiver, but David Boston may be out of their range. More likely, targets such as Oronde Gadsden, Derrius Thompson and Kevin Dyson will get looks.

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