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Thursday, February 23, 2012
Talking with Chargers GM A.J. Smith

By Bill Williamson

INDIANAPOLIS -- I had a chance to meet with San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith on Thursday.

In the big picture, Smith said his team must address its defense before as it attempts another playoff run. However, Smith’s most pressing issue is the offensive line. Smith said the line “is the area that is causing [him] to lose sleep.”

However, Smith may rest easy soon enough. There may be more clarity on the group in the near future. Center Nick Hardwick is a free agent and has said he wants to return. Smith wants him back, but a deal has to be completed.

Guard Kris Dielman is coming off a concussion that ended his 2011 season prematurely. He has even considered retiring. But he is expected to play, even though a final decision hasn’t been made.

The team is expected to release left tackle Marcus McNeill, who is dealing with a possible career-ending neck injury. He is due a bonus early next month. Jared Gaither took over for McNeill last season and did well. The team hopes to re-sign him in free agency but, like Hardwick, there are no guarantees.

“We don’t know how it will play out on the line,” Smith said. “A lot of things can happen. There are things we want to happen, but that doesn’t mean they will happen. But we will know soon enough.”

What Smith wants to see is improvement on defense. Smith said he is excited about new defensive coordinator John Pagano, who was a longtime assistant coach in San Diego. The Chargers defense sagged in its one year under former coordinator Greg Manusky, who was fired in January.

Smith said the key to improving the defense is becoming a better unit on third down. The team was last in the NFL in getting off the field on third down in 2011. “That is the first thing we have to figure out,” Smith said.

Smith said he is excited about several players, including young defensive linemen Corey Liuget, Vaughn Martin and Cam Thomas. The Chargers, who may cut Luis Castillo, will add to the line, but they are expecting big things from the unit under Pagano’s guidance.

Smith wouldn’t specifically address getting pass-rushers in free agency, but he did say the team needs more of them. If the Chargers do look at pass-rushers on the open market, the Colts’ Robert Mathis and the Lions’ Cliff Avril (if he isn’t given the franchise tag) could be intriguing options.

Smith said he wants to keep receiver Vincent Jackson, but wouldn’t say whether he thinks Jackson will stay. I think the team’s best scenario is to let Jackson explore his options in free agency and then try to sign him. That was the tact the team used with safety Eric Weddle last year. Unless other events unfold unexpectedly, don’t expect the Chargers to give Jackson the franchise tag.

Smith said he was pleased to see quarterback Philip Rivers finish the season strong and that he's not concerned about Rivers experiencing early-season struggles again like he did last year.

“He was pressing” Smith said. “He knows it. That happens, but Philip is fine.”