Chargers built through the undrafted

There's an old football adage that says that teams are built through the draft. In the Chargers‘ case, it has been their undrafted players who have made all the difference. In their victory over the Patriots last weekend, the Chargers started four undrafted free agents: Antonio Gates, Eric Parker, Kris Dielman and Jacques Cesaire.

These four players have developed from mere contributors into core members of the team.

The best of this group is clearly Antonio Gates, who went undrafted in 2003 and then went to the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season. Not only has he made his mark on the offense, but in the record books as well; his 13 touchdown catches last season were the most in the history of the league by a tight end. This year, he is tied for the team lead in receptions (18), and leads the team in both receiving yards (280) and yards per catch (15.6), despite missing the season opener.

"I am put in situations to make plays and Drew does a great job of finding the open guy," said Gates.

Like Gates, Eric Parker has entrenched himself as a starter on offense. Parker does an excellent job of maximizing on the single-coverage opportunities provided by the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Gates. Not only that, but his rise from having an outside shot at making the team to becoming an outside threat on the team has become a tale of inspiration.

"Eric has become a very good receiver," head coach Marty Schottenheimer explained. "Without question there is not a player on this team that works harder than him. He has made himself what he is. He creates as much separation as any receiver."

During training camp, Chargers coaches told Parker's story to the young players fighting for roster spots. It is retold here by a former member of the team, Ruvell Martin:

"They told us all about Eric Parker," recalled Martin. "When he first came here there wasn't a roster spot for him. The team was kind of set before he got there. But he came in, played well, and created a spot for himself. Now he's a starter on the team."

While Parker is now in his second year as a starter, Kris Dielman just completed his second week in the starting lineup. Given the way his performance has helped stabilize an offensive line that was anything but during weeks one and two, he may be there for a while.

"Replacing a guy like Toniu (Fonoti), Dielman stepped right in and did not miss a beat," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "It is a credit to him, just by watching film and getting a few reps and knowing what he is supposed to do."

Dielman brings athleticism and intensity to the lineup, and the team has not given up a sack since his starting debut.

On the defensive side of the ball, Jacques Cesaire has given faith to all the optimists who believe that economics don't have an effect on who plays in the NFL.

Defensive ends Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo were both selected in the top 35 of each of the last two drafts, respectively. Now, Olshansky and Castillo are seemingly battling one another for a starting spot, as neither has been able to oust Cesaire from the lineup. That is because Cesaire is a disciplined player who is dominant against the run, while still showing the quickness to penetrate and make plays in the backfield.

"He has incredible balance," said Schottenheimer. He has good body strength and can stack up the line of scrimmage effectively."

The impact of former undrafted players goes beyond the starting lineup. Kassim Osgood and Stephen Cooper have been special teams mainstays, and DeQuincy Scott has 11 career sacks as a situational pass rusher. Then there's Derreck Robinson and Marques Harris, both of whom made the team as rookie free agents this year.

The Chargers have made many a successful dip into the undrafted free agent pool, and have found more gems than Tiffany & Co. Even though these players may not have done enough to get themselves drafted, it appears they have more than enough talent to help the Chargers defend their AFC West title.

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