Chargers Inside Slant

All signs continue to point to A.J. Smith replacing the late John Butler as the Chargers' general manager. <br><br> Smith, who worked with Butler for 21 years in three organizations, will conduct the draft in wake of Butler succumbing to cancer on April 11.

Team president Dean Spanos has declined to name Smith the permanent replacement this week, out of respect to Butler.

But indications are Smith will get the position, and it may be announced in the days after the draft.

"We will address the situation shortly," Spanos said. "This week is dedicated to John."

But Smith, 54, is in the forefront, as well, of Spanos' thoughts. It's believed he's settled on Smith, who was Butler's right-hand man during his successful stint in Buffalo, and through their two seasons in San Diego, in their second stint with the Chargers.

"It's very strange," Smith said, of working without the bigger-than-life Butler. "Twenty-one years to be with somebody; talking about the draft and free agency acquisitions and building a football team and trying to win a championship and sharing that. Yeah, that's pretty tough. It's very, very tough."

Spanos echoed Smith's words.

"He lost his best friend," he said.

And that best friend would want Smith to continue the groundwork that possibly has this woeful franchise pointed in the right direction. The Chargers haven't been to the playoffs in seven straight seasons -- only the Bengals, at 13, eclipse that -- but there is a foundation. And that structure comes from two drafts that have produced running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback Drew Brees, right guard Toniu Fonoti, cornerback Quentin Jammer and wide receiver Reche Caldwell.

Still, the Chargers are but 13-19 on the Butler-Smith watch. That's hard to swallow after that same pair led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls.

"This is the big push year for this organization," Smith said. "We have to go over the top."

And leading the charge will likely be Smith. If he's not named to succeed Butler, it could be the first NFL upset of the season.

DRAFT STRATEGY -- The Chargers hope their continued climb from NFL doormats to a playoff-caliber team will be aided by their third straight successful draft.

The team erased one pressing need when it snagged wide receiver David Boston in free agency. With Curtis Conway fleeing to the New York Jets, Tim Dwight being more of a complementary receiver, and Reche Caldwell still learning how to compete on a consistent basis, the wide receiver spot cried for attention.

But with Boston in tow, the Chargers can go about rebuilding a poor defense, which ranked 30th overall last year, and dead last in defending the pass.

Because there are so many holes on that side of the ball -- with the shedding of Pro Bowlers Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison, and cornerback Alex Molden -- defensive players should be the focus on the Chargers' draft.

The team selects 15th overall, and has a draft pick in every round. But just like they did in 2001, they will entertain offers to move up or down. Few can forget Butler doing just that when conducting his first Chargers draft, when sliding out of the No. 1 spot and a shot at Michael Vick. He traded down, eventually drafting Tomlinson, Brees, Caldwell and obtaining Dwight from the Falcons.

Defensive tackle, cornerback, safety, offensive tackle.

DT -- The Chargers thought replacing John Parrella would be a simple task. It wasn't, so the Chargers figure to look hard at the young tackles available. Jason Fisk was brought in to make people forget Parrella, and that didn't happen. Jamal Williams is a stout run-stuffer, but he hasn't played a full season the past two years. Counting on him for 16 games this year would seem to be foolish. So look for the Chargers to go for a big body here -- someone who can collapse the pocket and make the ends productive. Remember, in part because of the weak pass rush in the middle last year, ends Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson saw their sack totals drop from 22.5 to 12.5. Someone who could give Wiley and Johnson some help is Miami's William Joseph. He didn't have a stellar senior year, but he has the tools in which line coach Wayne Nunnely could mold into him being a productive NFL player.

CB -- Not one defensive back from last year's opening day will man the same spot at this season's opening day. Cornerback Ryan McNeil has been moved to free safety. Rogers Beckett, who lost his starting job at free safety last year, has been moved to strong safety to replace Harrison. Molden was shown the door, and Jammer is being counted on to take McNeil's spot. So help here could be addressed early as the Chargers try to shore up a terrible pass defense. Although, with one first-year starter in Jammer, some think the Chargers will be reluctant to draft early at the cornerback position. Tay Cody, a third-year pro, might step in instead, although he's seen as more of a nickel back. The top two cornerbacks, Kansas State's Terence Newman and Washington State's Marcus Trufant, will be gone by the time the Chargers' name is called at No. 15. But those still expected to be on the board include Tennessee's Julian Battle and Illinois' Eugene Wilson.

S -- Big questions here. McNeil is unproven at safety, although the heady veteran will likely make a seamless transition. But at strong safety, Beckett is hardly a slam dunk. He has trouble finding the ball, and often seems to play as quiet as his demeanor. USC's Troy Polamalu was a solid strong safety for the Trojans, although some think his height at 5-10, will be a liability. Ohio State's Mike Doss is another possibility, although he's about the same size as Polamalu.

OT -- The interior of the offensive line is pretty deep, with undrafted rookie Jason Ball stepping in at center for Cory Raymer and proving his worth. Also, the team picked up guard Kelvin Garmon last year in a trade with Dallas; Fonoti, the other guard, is expected to start again as well. But the tackle spot isn't as set. Vaughn Parker is a steady pro at right tackle, but he's going into his 10th season. There's little doubt he has another season remaining, but the Chargers need to look long-term. Damion McIntosh, the left tackle, was hampered by an ankle injury last year. Plus, he'll be an unrestricted free agent after the '03 season.

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