Should they pay or should they go? Marcus McNeill/Vincent Jackson

| August 10, 2010

When the Chargers handed out a big contract this offseason, it was more notable for who wasn’t receiving it than for who was.

With the contracts of tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson expiring this season, the Chargers sent a message to both by paying TE Antonio Gates what he wanted — getting many to speculate whether the Chargers are prepared to move on without their star receiver and franchise left tackle.

Are the Chargers making a shrewd assessment of overrated players, or picking the wrong line to draw in the sand?

Yes, and no.

VINCENT JACKSON: A PROBLEM OF HIS OWN MAKING

Based on football excellence, Jackson deserves to be paid as one of the game’s top receivers.

In 2009, we graded him as No. 4 among WRs in the pass game, and as a bonus, he tied for No. 7 as a blocker. He was one of a handful of players to average more than 10 yards a target (11.1 per), and like QB Philip Rivers, he was incredibly consistent — he only graded negatively once over 17 games.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t just boil down to his ability. Run-ins with the law have left him suspended for the first three games of the 2010 season, and future off-field issues could see him facing larger suspensions.

Are the Chargers willing to take that risk? The importance of Jackson to the Chargers cannot be understated. A rare blend of speed and size, Jackson was a huge part of San Diego’s vertical passing game. He only forced 3 missed tackles all year, but that says more about how the Chargers used him — getting him to run by defensive backs and use his physicality to get in position to make plays on the ball (only 3 dropped passes). Jackson creates space for the Chargers over the middle and forces safeties to respect the deep ball that little bit more.

It also made life a lot easier for Malcom Floyd, who had a terrific 2009 as well. We had Floyd ranked tied for 10th in the passing game, he also blocked well, and he also averaged 10+ yards per target.

But having to step up into the role of a No. 1 receiver isn’t going to be quite so straightforward. Floyd excelled as a No. 2 receiver, with Jackson drawing the coverage of a team’s top cornerback — it’s hard to say that when matching up with the top corners in a loaded AFC West, Floyd is going to be able to replicate the impact Jackson had.

Even if Floyd is able to fill in and suitably replace Jackson, it presents the issue of who replaces Floyd as the No. 2  receiver. Buster Davis is living up to his name; he saw only 52 snaps all season, when starters were rested for the final game. Legedu Naanee was the third receiver when Chambers was cut, and although he caught 24 of 27 passes thrown to him (No. 1 among WRs with at least 25 percent of overall snaps), he won’t be part of the deep-threat duo that the Chargers offense made so much of in 2009.

Floyd has the potential to lessen the negative impact of losing Jackson, but there isn’t a player ready to step up opposite him and keep the Chargers passing attack working as it has been.

With Brandon Marshall (a receiver who has had more legal troubles and been less consistent than Jackson) receiving a four-year deal with $24M guaranteed, a benchmark has been set for the troubled but talented receivers. The Chargers’ Super Bowl window appears to be closing, and if they’re going to get there, then they’ll need what Jackson offers them.

Verdict: Pay the man.


MARCUS McNEILL: PROTECTING HIS OWN BLIND SIDE

After a strong rookie year, McNeill was rewarded with the “Franchise Left Tackle” moniker that has stuck since.

Never the greatest run-blocker, McNeil ranked as our 56th best run-blocking tackle in 2008 and 61st in 2009. His 26 positive blocks were the lowest for a left tackle who was in on more than 360 run plays.

But those who champion his cause (and contract demands) point to his ability to help Rivers stay on his feet — how else could Rivers do so much with a team that’s running game struggled mightily?

Part of the answer is that the left tackle position can be overvalued at times. A great quarterback doesn’t need a great left tackle to be successful (see Drew Brees), while a great tackle isn’t going to make a bad quarterback an automatic success (Joe Thomas). Rivers can make do with sub-optimal protection because he reacts to oncoming pressure and get rids of the ball safely, which goes a long way to explaining the Chargers’ stance when it comes paying McNeill like an elite left tackle.

GM A.J. Smith just watched the Saints win a Super Bowl with the spotty Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, and he let Brees leave San Diego because he thought Rivers was the better QB. Why the need to invest so much money into a position that the face of their franchise can deal with on his own?

McNeill is not one of the league’s top pass-protectors, either.

He graded out as our 31st-best pass-protecting tackle (right and left combined) after allowing 38 pressures in 2009 — more than the maligned Bryant McKinnie (Vikings) or Max Starks (Steelers), among other guys that won’t be requesting $20 million guaranteed.

What’s more, he has struggled against the top pass-rushers. Dallas’ dynamic duo of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer had four pressures from 34 pass plays despite McNeill getting tight end help on a third of those plays. And if he opts to play rather than hold out, he’ll be relieved that injured Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil won’t be lined up against him — McNeill lost the battle of “Doom” both times in 2009.

We’d advise the Chargers look at how the Super Bowl champions managed to move on without their similarly overrated franchise left tackle (Jammal Brown). The circumstances may be different, but injury forced the Saints to put blindside protection in the hands of their QB — and the end results were a shiny Vince Lombardi trophy, an increase in draft picks and a lot of money saved.

The Chargers could copy the Saints’ pattern and use this holdout as a chance to trade McNeill, get draft picks and financial flexibility, and continue reshaping their roster.

Verdict: McNeill should go.

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