Critical Draft Coming for A.J. Smith

This time last April the Chargers were downright smug. Sure they had missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season, but general manager A.J. Smith was clutching three of the first 61 picks. We know how that turned out with those three picks having little impact, and the team missed the playoffs again.

Fast forward to this year and Smith owns two of the first 49 picks. Chargers fans are hoping the man with the one-time Midas touch on draft days gets his stuff together once more.

Smith needs to aid a defense that was dreadful last year on passing downs. It finished with the worst third-down ranking in the NFL as it consistently allowed teams to get a fresh set of downs while the defense wore down.

So look for Smith to zero in on that side of the ball, and in particular, pass rushers.

Among those on the Chargers' radar are Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Illinois' Whitney Mercilus and USC's Nick Perry.

Or the team could turn to a safety, with Alabama's Mark Barron a potential pick.

"We've invested so much offensively in pro free agents, and I think there's a commitment within the building to address the defense," said Jimmy Raye, the Chargers' director of player personnel. "Will that be with the first two picks? I don't know. Things change. At the same time, we understand that we need to supplement the elements we have better here and add more talent on that side of the ball. That's been well documented during this offseason."


Outside linebacker: One player had more than four sacks for the Chargers last year - no wonder they had the NFL's worst third-down defense. The team's first pick needs to be a pass rusher, someone to help a gassed defense to get off the field. It's imperative the first words that come out of Smith's mouth on draft day is him announcing the name of a player that can put heat on the quarterback.

Strong Safety: Some day, no really, the Chargers will find a replacement for Rodney Harrison. They brought in Atari Bigby, but really he is just like last year's starter, Steve Gregory, with a cooler name. Finding someone to thump and run would be a great addition for the Chargers' shaky defense.

Cornerback: Antoine Cason hasn't been the consistent player the Chargers hoped for when picking him first in 2008. And Quentin Jammer had a tough time backpedalling away from Father Time last year. Neither is special; neither is a true shutdown corner.

Defensive end: Somewhat pleased with what first-round pick Corey Liuget did last season, that doesn't mean this position is locked down. The team did bring back Luis Castillo after a broken leg cost him last season; Vaughn Martin has progressed from project to productive. Neither Castillo nor Martin are difference-makers, something that the Chargers seek.

Running back: The Chargers have what they hope is an elite back in Ryan Mathews; he is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season and gained 1,546 yards from scrimmage. But Mathews still has durability issues and it's imperative the Chargers find someone to spell him.

Coach Norv Turner
Jeff Gross/Getty
--The Chargers are on the clock.

Or better put, general manager A. J. Smith and coach Norv Turner are hearing the tick, tock, tick, tock.

With the 18th overall pick, the Chargers are hopeful of snagging a player that can make an immediate impact. As far as Smith and Turner are concerned, nothing would be better.

Smith and Turner were brought back for one more go-around, despite their last four seasons of putting their noggins together resulting in one playoff win.

But when team president Dean Spanos decided to go with the status quo after the Chargers' second straight year of missing the playoffs, he also put Smith and Turner on notice: anything less than a postseason appearance would likely lead to their departure.

So let other teams get someone to develop. Let others teams draft the best available player that maybe doesn't fill a need.

The Chargers have had their fill of disappointing seasons. So the thinking is the Chargers will strike with someone as game-ready as possible.

With so much of the team's offseason attention focused on fixing the offense, all indications are defensive players will clog the Chargers' draft board.

"People were getting caught up in my saying that unless we fix the defense, we're not going to win a world championship," Smith said. "Everyone had their scorecards out and saw that offense was overwhelming the defense."

But that can change, fast, and it figures to do just that next week.

The Chargers had but one player, Antwan Barnes, with more than four sacks last season. The team's inability to get off the field on third downs was clear; it had the NFL's worst third-down defense.

Without adding a pass rusher, the Chargers know they are tempting fate. They would be left hoping that first-round bust Larry English can find health and the pocket, and that Shaun Phillips will be healthier to eclipse last year's four-sack total.

Then there's the addition of Peyton Manning to the Broncos, a team the Chargers face twice each year, so you know where this is going.

But does Smith? It would appear he's not blind to the team's blemishes, but he has done some surprising things before on draft days.

Smith needs to get a pass rusher, or two, a cornerback and a strong safety. The Chargers lack of impact players that can disrupt a passing game is glaring, and something Smith must go about fixing starting April 26.

Will Smith do just that by selecting Alabama's Courtney Upshaw? USC's Nick Perry? Illinois' Whitney Mercilus? South Carolina's Melvin Ingram?

Any of those guys put the heat on quarterbacks and would be a solid first-round pick for the Chargers.

But nothing is certain with Smith, who has stumbled in his recent drafts after his first three helped the Chargers return to relevance.

It's clear the Chargers need defensive aid. It's up to Smith to provide it.

Tick, tock, tick, tock.


--General manager A.J. Smith admits - even if this is Liars' Month in the NFL - that defensive players are what the Chargers are seeking so they can avoid missing the playoffs for the third straight year.

"We're looking at the draft defensively, that's true," Smith said. "But more importantly, we're looking for good players that fit into what we do strategically. The free-agent activity was due to a reaction to players we lost. It was also due to the largest and deepest free-agent class in the history of the NFL. We expected that and we planned for it financially. Quality veterans are still out there, including defenders in trade and free agency as the market value drops."

--Fullback Jacob Hester, after making a visit to Seattle, settled on San Diego. The free agent decided to return to San Diego, despite facing a diminished role with the signing of Le'Ron McLain. "Excited about being back with the Bolts," Hester posted on Twitter. "Thanks for all the support I've received from Bolt nation!"

--The Chargers will open the season as the second bill on a "Monday Night Football" doubleheader on Sept. 10 at Oakland. "I'm already looking forward to playing Oakland in Week 1, and beyond that I always want to know where the division games are," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "We were 3-3 in the AFC West the last two seasons, and while you can point to other games, I think our play within the division is the biggest reason we missed the playoffs the last two seasons."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a long time between now and August." - General manager A. J. Smith on the team's lack of acquiring top-shelf defensive players this offseason.

Will Smith be looking to make a trade on draft day? Discuss in the message boards.

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