Chargers Have to Make Picks Count

The NFL Scouting Combine arrived and Chargers fans are hopeful general manager A. J. Smith was paying attention.

Two numbers surround the Chargers and both should be embraced with equal significance. The Chargers have three of the first 61 picks in the draft and they need to choose wisely in erasing a run of one playoff win in three seasons.

After the clunker that was 2010, when the Chargers' string of four straight AFC West titles was snapped, Smith needs to be on his game this offseason.

Without the playoffs and minus a clear picture they will remain in San Diego long-term, the Chargers need some good news. They can start by doing something they used to do with regularity: having successful drafts.

That is why the scouting exercise in Indianapolis is so critical for the Chargers to emerge from the pits. Evaluating with a keen eye in February could translate into selecting productive players in April.

Smith had a hot hand early in his Chargers' stint, producing draft-day masterpieces like the one in 2004 when selecting Eli Manning No. 1 and flipping him in a deal to the Giants which brought back a package that included Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman and Nate Kaeding.

But the last four drafts have taken on a scent not reminding many of a rose.

The jury remains out on running back Ryan Mathews, last year's first-round pick. But few are sold on the 2009 first-rounder, outside linebacker Larry English.

Especially when considering Smith passed on another pass-rushing linebacker - Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Clay Matthews - to wrap his arms around English.

That hiccup reminded some of Smith's first Chargers draft in 2003 when he passed on Troy Polamalu, the current NFL Defensive Player of the Year, to trade down and get Sammy Davis.

"You have a decision to make and you make it now," Smith was quoted as saying. "You're never going to be 100 percent correct. You go by your instincts, and it's hard to do with kids. But, if your percentage is high enough, you're probably going to be successful."

Lately, though, about that Chargers' draft success rate? Not so much.

The 2008 first-rounder, Antoine Cason, has become a starter. But that draft is known just as much for Smith spending a bundle to move up and take running back Jacob Hester. Hester has morphed into a fullback, special-teams player.

In 2007, it was wide receiver Buster Davis and no player selected by the Chargers has been more appropriately named.

"I think, overall, we've done a good job finding people who can play," Smith countered. "What you don't want to do is make a mistake on a guy you pick high who can't play in the league at all. It happens, but if it does, I'm not going to keep them around. I'll run them out of here."

We can guess Smith is overlooking the inconsistent and injury prone Davis, although there are no guarantees he will be in a Chargers uniform when the season starts.

What we do know is this: Smith has to get back to his Midas touch days of 2004 and 2005 to fill needs for a team that was once mentioned among the elites.

The Chargers are still close to entering that category with a stellar quarterback in Philip Rivers. But that high-octane offense can't do it all, and the defense, while finishing with the NFL's top ranking last season, needs some impact players.

And with Smith consistently turning up his nose at signing marquee free agents that impact has to come from the draft.

"There are some disappointed people out there, and I'm one of them," Smith said after the Chargers wasted a stellar season by Rivers. "We're not an elite team; we've lost that. We were second in our division last year and out of it. We have to earn back that status we had. Because it's gone; it really is. I deal in facts, man."

Fact is, the Chargers need to find some gems in the draft.


SS Darrell Stuckey
Otto Greule Jr./Getty
--SS Darrell Stuckey is a bit more at peace entering his second season. Instead of the fourth-round pick preparing for the Combine this time last year and what the NFL might bring, he is working on getting better instead of getting noticed. "Last year you really didn't know what you were getting yourself into," said Stuckey, after a rookie season that was derailed by a preseason injury. "You didn't know what was coming. There are a lot of different questions.

"This year there's a lot more answers than there are questions so I know what direction I'm going in. I know what's expected of me. I know what possible role I can play. So it's more of the opportunity of going out there and just doing it."

--Steve Wilks, the Chargers' secondary coach for two seasons, was elevated to assistant head coach-secondary by Norv Turner.

"Steve has done an outstanding job with our secondary since he's been here and now we're going to be asking even more of him," Turner said.

Before Wilks came aboard, the Chargers' pass defense was ranked next-to-last. This past year the Chargers led the NFL in pass defense and overall defense.

"I'm excited about the opportunity," Wilks said. "It's a chance for me to grow and expand my abilities and gain valuable experience."

--San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and team president Dean Spanos have scheduled a meeting for an update on the proposed downtown stadium site. Among the urgency that needs to be addressed is the proposal to build an NFL stadium in L.A. - with the Chargers being among the potential tenants - and Gov. Brown possibly doing away with redevelopment tax money that was to fund San Diego's downtown stadium. The Chargers have made no promises to stay in San Diego after 2011.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Unless you know him like we do as players, to me he has a very misleading perception on the outside as a very laid-back, not very passionate head coach that's not as fiery and energetic as he should be. And in a lot of ways that couldn't be further from the truth" - QB Philip Rivers on the difference between coach Norv Turner the person and the perception others have of him.


Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is among the Chargers' most celebrated free agents and it appears he is returning after the team used the franchise tag on him.

Jackson is the most important free agent on the offensive side although other key parts remain to be addressed in wide receiver Malcom Floyd and right tackle Jeromey Clary.

But there's still much work to be done on the opposite side of the ball. The NFL's top defense - in yards allowed - has key players up for new deals in free safety Eric Weddle and inside linebacker Kevin Burnett.


1. Outside linebacker: The Chargers had that top defense but there weren't many difference-makers on the unit - hence, few turnovers. If the Chargers don't think Larry English can provide a boost off the edge - he's yet to do so in two years - the Chargers might look for another pass rusher.

2. Defensive end: The Chargers' starting pair, Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire, are decent. But is that good enough? The Chargers don't think so and could be looking to upgrade here. There are also depth concerns here; look for the Chargers to beef up this spot.

3. Inside linebacker: Two key players are free agents here, Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett, and it's not clear if both - or either - will be brought back. Cooper could be showing the wear and tear; Burnett might ask for too much cash.

4. Right tackle: Jeromey Clary has been a whipping post of sorts for Chargers fans, as they see every one of his errors but don't notice when he plays well. Clary is a free agent, but figures not to be too high priced. But if so, and the Chargers can upgrade, they could look in another direction.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.

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