SAN DIEGO — The Chargers, always thinking offense, are keeping an eye on wide receiver Trumaine Johnson's contract dispute with the Arizona Outlaws of the United States Football League.
Johnson, the No. 1 receiver in the USFL, has left the Arizona franchise over a conflict concerning a signing bonus and seems to be prepared for a lengthy holdout as the league nears the kickoff of its third season on Feb. 24.
The Chargers own the National Football League rights to Johnson as a result of selecting him in the sixth round of the 1983 draft after he had signed with the USFL's Chicago entry, which later relocated in Phoenix.
"We are always interested," Charger Owner Alex Spanos said Monday. "There has been some communication (with his agent, Andre Jackson). But there is nothing more we can do as long as he is under contract. It's their move. We can't pursue him now."
Meanwhile, a USFL team, the Orlando Renegades, seemed to be pursuing veteran Charger defensive back Tim Fox.
"We have an interest," said Orlando General Manager Lewis (Bugsy) Ingelberg, who declined to elaborate on the extent of that interest.
Regarding Johnson, the Chargers are wary because of concern over the $1.32-billion antitrust suit filed by the USFL against the NFL, Spanos admitted.
General Manager Johnny Sanders said the cautious stance was adopted by the Chargers on their own, and not at the direction of the NFL.
Sanders also said the club is neither optimistic or pessimistic about the possibility of obtaining Johnson, but will continue to monitor developments.
"We had him rated very highly and he has performed up to our ratings," Sanders said.
The 6-foot 3-inch, 193-pound Johnson, a third-year pro from Grambling, was the leading receiver in each of the USFL's two years. He has caught at least one pass in all 36 regular-season and four playoff games in which he has participated.
He made 81 receptions for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie in 1983. He followed with 90 catches for 1,268 yards and 13 TDs in 1984.
Johnson, who almost certainly would have been a first-round NFL draft choice if he had not signed with the USFL, is described as a young Wes Chandler by Charger receiver coach Al Saunders.
"He would be an impact player on any team in any league," he said. "He has the speed and body control, the ability to make acrobatic catches and the ability to accelerate after the catch that Chandler had in the early years of his career."
Injuries and inconsistency have plagued Chandler the last two years, and there has to be some question as to whether his peak years are past, even though he is only 28.
Hence, the renewed interest in Johnson, who signed a 10-year contract, including a $1-million signing bonus, with Arizona last year.
In a scenario familiar to followers of recent Charger camps, Johnson walked out of training camp on Jan. 23 in a dispute over the funding of the signing bonus, which is to be paid in installments after his career ends.
Johnson, who earns a base salary of $250,000, wants to borrow against future installments due on the signing bonus in order to make the down payment on a ranch in Louisiana.
The Outlaws refused to grant the financial concessions Johnson was asking.
While maintaining a cautious stance on developments concerning Johnson, the Chargers also were focusing on a list of 16 players who became free agents on Feb. 1.
The list includes such prominent names as quarterback Ed Luther, receiver Charlie Joiner, offensive tackle Ed White and linebacker Linden King.
The others include running back Wayne Morris, tight end Ron Egloff, offensive linemen Derrel Gofourth, Drew Gissinger and Chuck Loewen, defensive lineman Chuck Ehin, linebackers Ray Preston and Eric Williams and defensive backs Fox, Miles McPherson, Bill Kay and Johnny Ray Smith.
The Chargers have indicated interest in retaining all of them. They decided, however, not to re-sign running back Sherman Smith, who missed all of last season with a knee injury suffered in mini-camp.
Negotiations with some of the players likely will extend into training camp next summer.
One agent, who requested anonymity, said his plan is to be patient and see how far the Chargers are willing to go with Luther, who is represented by Leigh Steinberg.
As a guess, the agent speculated that Luther might be seeking a package worth $750,000 annually.
Luther, a five-year veteran with limited experience, is in a commanding position because of his strong arm and the lack of promising quarterbacks in this year's draft.
The Chargers are close to wrapping up new contracts for three assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Tom Bass, linebacker coach Chuck Weber and special teams coach Marv Braden.
"They haven't signed yet, but we anticipate no problems," Sanders said.