<strong>July 17. 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/canepa/20050717-9999-1s17canepa.html">San Diego Union Tribune</a>
A.J. Smith is fixin' for a fight he may not even get into. Nonetheless, he's doing some verbal shadow boxing, protecting himself at all times â€“ although there's no real reason for protection. Just yet.
The Chargers' general manager isn't afraid to let everyone know his position before he enters the negotiating ring with top draft pick Shawne Merriman and his agent, Kevin Poston. And that's firm. Smith isn't budging.
Rookies report to training camp July 26, but negotiations with Merriman & Co. haven't begun, nor will they until players drafted around the former Maryland defensive end/linebacker have signed. And things are crawling.
"Nothing is going to happen until the posturing takes place," Smith says. "I have no idea what they want."
Poston and his brother/partner, Carl, have been known to be mean infighters â€“ Kevin held Merriman out of minicamp on an injury-language issue â€“ so everyone west of Istanbul expects fisticuffs.
The Chargers aren't known for signing their first picks early anyway (although Luis Castillo, their later first-round choice, isn't expected to hassle), and last year Philip Rivers' agent, Jimmy Sexton, discovered Smith isn't an easy mark. The long camp holdout cost Sexton's quarterback any chance to compete with Drew Brees for the starting job â€“ perhaps forever.
Plus, Merriman went 12th overall, not second or third. It's called "slotting" in NFL negotiations. When Dallas signs its 11th overall selection, the Chargers will give Poston a figure, although he may wait if New Orleans hasn't signed the 13th choice. Hence the "slot."
"It's going to be a good contract, but I'm sure he'll wait for Dallas and New Orleans and then go from there," Smith says. "I think what we will offer will be good enough. The problem is not ours. We're bigger than they are.
"I don't know what the climate is out there. I really mean that. Each draft is different. I hope it happens quickly, but agents are afraid to make a bad deal. They don't want to be first in, because if it's a bad deal, they're going to get fired."
Smith already isn't overly pleased with Merriman missing minicamps and summer school. Poston was concerned that, without a change in the team's injury-liability language, Merriman might not get his monetary due if he were to damage himself on Chargers time.
Franchise history shows it has paid injured draft choices before they signed, but Poston held firm. So did Smith, refusing a language change, and Merriman has been working out on his own. Can't say how smart that is. If he injures himself away from the club, he'll get nowhere near the money he would have received had he done it on the Chargers' watch.
"He will be given a good contract by the Chargers," Smith says, "and if he rejects it and misses the first day of camp, it's only going to get worse. They don't have leverage â€“ not with this organization. Call Jimmy Sexton and ask him and you'll find out. He played games, and everything blew up in his face. He got the double whammy."
And Sexton had to figure he was dealing from a position of strength. After Brees had a poor 2003 season, the Chargers drafted Rivers with the obvious intention of awarding the rookie the starting job â€“ if he proved worthy. Rivers had no chance after the long holdout, and Brees responded with a Pro Bowl season.
When Smith says Poston and Merriman don't have leverage, he has a point. Smith drafted Merriman because he wanted a pass rusher, but the team went 12-4 last year without him. It's a need, but he's not desperate.
"My philosophy is like this," Smith explains. "If you have a free agent at that position or, say, a seventh-round draft choice, then I'd search every day to get somebody. But, in this case, it's not going to help that person holding it over you.
"And nothing is going to change. Maybe I'm still too new and that philosophy hasn't gotten around. Sexton thought we would be crippled without Philip Rivers. He made a terrible mistake. And, to me, this isn't even a bluff. I don't play the bluff game.
"If Shawne Merriman isn't there on Day One, I'll spell it out to you guys and tell you exactly what's going on. Then don't ask me about it again until Shawne Merriman becomes a Charger. And I'll tell coach (Marty) Schottenheimer the same thing: 'Talk about the players who are here.' "
For someone not expecting a fight, Smith sounds like a guy expecting one.
"I don't know what Poston thinks about the Chargers," he says, bringing up Merriman's absence this spring. "If that was a ploy to see how we are, they got the message. It could be smooth as silk and both sides could be happy, although some people say I'm crazy to say that.
"Nobody's telling me the story. Because I know how it ends."
These are the Chargers, remember. Merriman may still be home in September.
"We're looking for a pass rusher," Smith says. "We'll find somebody; we'll find somebody who wants to be a Charger. They only have you if you let them. You're either a part of us, or you're not. The team is bigger than a player â€“ and certainly a lot bigger than the agent."
Smith has drawn an imaginary line in imaginary sand. But he has fired a warning shot.