Former First-Round Picks Must Step Up

The Chargers have issues on all three levels of the defense. GM A.J. Smith will plug as many holes as possible via free agency and the draft, but much of the improvement must come from within. It starts with three former first-round selections: Antoine Cason, Larry English and Corey Liuget.

Call it a coincidence or just more bad luck for Norv Turner, but Smith's first-round picks have gone downhill since Turner took over in 2007. WR Buster Davis had an injury-riddled four-year career with the Chargers (51 catches, 558 yards, two TDs) before being released prior to the 2011 season.

After Davis came Antoine Cason, who struggled early in his career, losing his nickel back job to Steve Gregory. Cason made notable progress in 2010, starting 15 games and leading the team with four INTs and 17 pass breakups, but he regressed mightily in 2011.

Cason lost his starting job midseason to rookie Marcus Gilchrist. The green Gilchrist quickly proved to be in over his head, allowing Cason to regain his starting role. Although Cason played steadier down the stretch, he can expect another strong push from Gilchrist in 2012, especially after the Clemson product has a full offseason to fine-tune his craft.

While Cason has been an up-and-down performer, the first-round pick that followed him -- Larry English -- has been all down. Drafted to bookend Shaun Phillips, English has started just four games in three seasons. He averages less than a sack every four games played and has been unable to shake a chronic foot problem.

English did not start a game in 2011, his spot going to journeyman Travis LaBoy. While LaBoy is under contract for next season, the team would prefer someone who can bring some more heat off the edge. Antwan Barnes, who set the pace with 11 sacks in 2011, is best suited to be a situational pass rusher.

The jury is still out on Smith's most recent first-rounder, Corey Liuget. The converted defensive end had a quiet rookie season (19 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, two passes batted down), but that's not unusual for linemen in 3-4 schemes. Hopefully he can make a bigger impact with fewer snaps in 2012, assuming Luis Castillo comes back healthy, allowing Liuget to come off the pine behind Castillo and the ascending Vaughn Martin.

Liuget was drafted because quickness allows him to disrupt plays in the backfield. That will have to happen much more in 2012 to justify San Diego's investment.

The bottom line is new coordinator John Pagano has his work cut out for him. So does Smith, who must re-sign Antonio Garay, acquire a new strong safety and draft depth across the board. If this trio of former first-round picks can finally live up to its potential, it will make Pagano and Smith's tasks infinitely easier.

Which free agents should the Chargers target? Discuss inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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