Chargers first round cluster

A.J. Smith likes his peanuts. Each year he groups a few NFL Draft prospects into what he terms a "cluster" – and when the Chargers pick he looks at those select few and picks the best remaining prospect in the litter.

And Smith does this for every round. Sometimes, there are surprises with availability of a prospect that they didn't think would be there. Pro Bowl rookie Shawne Merriman was a perfect example of that. They believed he was a top ten pick and never dreamed he would be around when they picked. He was and San Diego wasted little time with the selection.

This year, the team is seeking upgrades at several positions. One is relatively deep and could see an early run. Another is terribly weak and will cause teams to overvalue the selection. The third option has its pitfalls but could have its rewards.

Cornerback is a definitive need. They have Quentin Jammer in the final year of his contract and could use a defensive back with the ability to step in after being groomed as the nickel back this year.

Wide receivers isn't as pressing a need but the Bolts would love to give Philip Rivers a deep threat. Speed is the name of the game at this position.

Offensive line is a must, especially with Roman Oben's uncertain status because of plantar fascitis and off-season surgery. The options have their drawbacks as many have had questionable character issues and others are marked by medical flags. How each checked out could determine that fate.

What isn't a secret anymore is who they like. The order may be off but based on intimate knowledge we have been able to decipher the first cluster.

It includes:

1) Chad Jackson – If Jackson is on the board, the Chargers will be faced with a difficult decision. They love his upside and believe he will be a deep threat for years to come. But wide receiver isn't a position that needs an immediate starter and they usually take two years to prove whether the pick was worth it or a disaster. His speed, however, intrigues, and he would provide another weapon for Rivers, limited teams ability to stack the box.

2) Winston Justice – The team is positioning itself to do everything possible to ensure Philip Rivers succeeds. Adding a protector who can play the left side of the line if Oben remains sidelined and pushes Shane Olivea on the right side would be a blessing and give the offense more peace of mind. The line play struggled last year and Justice is seen as a player who can start this year.

3) Antonio Cromartie – A big, physical cornerback that can be put on an island. The Bolts need someone who can play the nickel this year and with so many teams sporting three receiver sets or employing a tight end who acts like a receiver, a top corner is necessary. Cromartie has the ball skills the Bolts are looking for.

4) Tye Hill – Not as physical as Cromartie but a solid technician who has the speed to stay with his coverage. He did not have a private visit with the club, the only player on this list not to, and it makes one wonder whether they see too much Sammy Davis in him.

5) Chad Greenway – The only top linebacker they invited in. While some believe he is a better fit in a traditional 4-3 defense, the Bolts see a lot of Donnie Edwards in him – a tenacious player who works hard and will fight on every down. Both starting inside linebackers are due to be gone next year and you can never have too many linebackers in the defense.

6) Eric Winston – Another player with injury concerns, Winston is seen as a player who needs some extra love from the coaching staff to coax his talent and put it on the field consistently. He has the ability to play the tackle positions and would provide that cushion for Rivers.

While the Bolts subscribe to the best player available theory, it is not unreasonable to see that player falls into a need category.

There could be a surprise again this year, a player they never thought would be around drops. That does not figure to happen this year.

How the first round is played and their expectations for the next 30 picks could also factor into the decision. Do they go cornerback in the first round knowing there will be a run on them? Do they pick a tackle thinking the depth just wont be there in subsequent rounds? We will know soon enough.

Our pick based on availability: Antonio Cromartie


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