What Could Have Been: The 1983 NFL Draft Revisited

It will be forever known as the Year of the quarterback. Three future Hall of Famers, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino were all selected in the 1st round in 1983. But did you realize that players like Eric Dickerson, Bruce Matthews, and Darrell Green were also first round selections in 1983? And in the middle of it all were the San Diego Chargers who had 3 #1's that season, the most of any team that year, and the most that the Chargers have ever had in a single draft.

Can you imagine former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle saying the following in 1983?

"With the first selection in the 1983 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers select, John Elway, quarterback, Stanford University."

It almost happened. According to some rumors, the Colts and the Chargers had made an agreement prior to the draft to trade two or three of their #1 selections and another player for the number 1 overall pick that the Chargers would have used to select John Elway as an eventual successor to Dan Fouts. But the Colts fell in love with Elway's physical attributes, ignored his "draft me and I'll play baseball", and nixed the deal. Elway balked, the Broncos swooped in with a lesser deal, and the rest is history.

The Chargers went ahead and used all three of their picks. They selected Billy Ray Smith, a roving hard hitting linebacker from Arkansas whom many had as the highest rated linebacker in the draft with the 5th pick. The Chargers then selected Smith's college teammate Gary Anderson, the shifty and speedy running back, to add another dimension to their already explosive offense. And with their last pick of the 1st round, the Chargers finally addressed their sagging defensive backfield by drafting Gill Byrd, a cornerback from San Jose State who had a reputation for being smart and cunning. As the draft ended that season, the Chargers received very high marks and many thought that the Chargers had drafted a foundation of players that would lead them to great success in the future.

But alas, hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. That isn't to say that Smith, Anderson, and Byrd weren't good players because they were. Smith played 11 years with the Chargers, was team defensive MVP in 1985 and 1986, and was the Chargers' MVP in 1987. Byrd intercepted 42 passes in his ten year career. Gary Anderson joined the Chargers in 1985 after a brief stop in the USFL, and had his best season with 1,119 rushing yards and a 5.0 average in 1988. (How could anyone forget his leap and flip into the end zone against the Dolphins?) But think of what could have been.

Granted, maybe John Elway wasn't in the cards. But what if after the Colts deal fell apart, the Chargers traded their #5 pick overall for Buffalo's 1st rounder (14th) and their 2nd round pick (39th)? How would Jim Kelly and Darryl Talley look in Charger blue and gold?

According to rumors, New England reportedly offered cornerback Mike Haynes to the Chargers in exchange for the 20th selection overall. The Chargers declined, Haynes was traded to the Raiders, and he along with Lester Hayes made up the best cornerback duo of the era. If the Chargers and Patriots had agreed to the deal of New England's 2nd round pick (47th) along with Haynes, the Chargers might have gotten a pretty good running back out of Nebraska named Roger Craig, whom the 49ers selected just two picks later (49th overall).

As good as Gill Byrd was, was he better than the final pick of the 1st round that season, a small but fast cornerback from tiny Texas A&M-Kingsville named Darrell Green?

Other players selected late in the 1983 Draft include defensive tackle Bill Pickel (Raiders- 54th), safety Dave Duerson (Bears – 64th), defensive lineman Charles Mann (Redskins-84th), and LB Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos-310th).

But perhaps worst of all, a quarterback with unsubstantiated drug rumors kept falling down the draft and the Chargers passed on him three different times. How would Dan Marino have looked backing up and learning from Dan Fouts? Oh well, at least we can't say that we bypassed Marino in favor of Todd Blackledge (Kansas City-7th overall) or Ken O'Brien (New York Jets-24th overall).

It wasn't all bad for the Chargers. Along with the three #1s they picked, they also found running back Earnest Jackson in the 8th round who ran for a then team record 1,179 yards in 1984 before getting shipped out to Philadelphia the following year. But alas, selected just after Jackson in the 8th round was defensive end Richard Dent who would win the Super Bowl MVP award just two years later with the Chicago Bears.

A draft pick here, a trade made there. That's the difference sometimes between greatness and uncertainty. Hindsight isn't just 20/20, sometimes it's cruel too.

Dr. J can be reached at: Dr. J and regularly answers fans in his weekly column here at Chargers Update.

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