The San Diego Chargers knew they had to add depth to their secondary entering the 2008 NFL Draft, and even though the cornerback position was fairly deep in ’08, the Chargers, who owned the 27th pick overall, had to hope for one of the top cornerbacks to fall into their lap. As their selection approached, four premiere corners had already come off the board: Leodis McKelvin (Buffalo Bills), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Arizona Cardinals), Aqib Talib (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Mike Jenkins (Dallas Cowboys). And with those players off the board, the Chargers had no choice but to select the next best cornerback available, former Arizona standout Antoine Cason. By no means was Cason a consolation prize, but at the time he was considered a reach in the first round.
At Arizona, Cason was a premier defender in the nation and finished his career with the Wildcats with 15 interceptions. He entered the NFL with questions about his speed and ability to be a playmaker at that level. But in his first season with the Chargers, Cason didn’t play like a reach and showed that he was just as good as the other corners selected ahead of him in the draft. The No. 1 prospect in the Chargers organization, Cason, played in all 16 games, starting three, and registered 74 tackles and two interceptions. As a situational defender and a special teams standout, Cason improved as the season went on and became a reliable contributor. This year, Cason again finds himself behind Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie and will be the team’s nickel corner. At 6-foot, 190 pounds, Cason has the perfect size and instincts to play inside and his ability to read the quarterback will open up plenty of opportunities for turnovers.
The Chargers are hoping that 2009 first round pick Larry English creates some of those turnovers with his prowess as a pass rusher. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound English primarily played defensive end at Northern Illinois and will have to make the transition to outside linebacker in the Chargers attacking 3-4 scheme. The second rated prospect in the organization has the skill set to play standing up, especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback. But to become a complete linebacker, English will have to adjust to dropping back in coverage and patrolling his area. A relentless defender who plays with a non-stop motor, English finished his career with the Huskies recording 31.5 career sacks. He’s a tweener who has the talent to be an explosive rush end, but lacks the size to play fulltime. He has a quick first step, good strength off the edge and blinding closing speed that abruptly hits the quarterback. He moves well in space, showing good awareness and tackling ability. He has strong hands and gets off blocks surprisingly well. He’s a little stiff in the hips and has to work on his lateral movement. English’s role this season will be a situational defender who can be brought in on special packages to be let loose. He has a chance to learn from some of the best linebackers in the game this season, and with Shawne Merriman being a free agent after the season, there’s a chance the front office will allow Merriman to walk and have English take over his spot in 2010.
One player on defense that’s not going anywhere is free safety Eric Weddle. The Chargers invested a lot in Weddle when they traded up into the second round of the 2007 draft to select him, and the steep price has paid off. The third rated prospect in the organization; Weddle has been a consistent, durable performer since joining the Chargers. As a rookie, he played in 15 games as a situational safety in nickel and dime schemes and contributed 53 tackles, a sack and an interception. Last year, Weddle earned the starting free safety job and lived up to the promise the front office knew he had when they drafted him. He led the team in tackles with 127 and was consistent in coverage. Entering his third year in the NFL, Weddle is now established as a starter in the league and has been very productive. The Chargers will expect Weddle to continue to show his durability and take his game to another level, especially in the turnover department. It’s surprising that Weddle has just two interceptions in his first two years, considering that he had 18 interceptions during his career at Utah. It’s obvious the playmaking skills are there for Weddle, and with a year of starting experience behind him, the comfort level rises, and that will allow him to react more than assume; expect Weddle to have a breakout ’09 season.
The Chargers know that Jacob Hester isn’t a conventional blocking fullback like their former bulldozer Lorenzo Neal. But the intangibles that Hester brings to the game as a dynamic offensive threat provides the offense with another versatile weapon they can utilize. It isn’t even etched in stone that Hester will win the starting job over Mike Tolbert this season, but when you look at his talent, it’s hard not to appoint him as the fourth rated prospect in the organization. In his first year, Hester played in all 16 games, starting three, and displayed his running and receiving skills, as well as an improved blocking technique. In a limited role, Hester had just 19 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown and caught 12 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Hester also played a big role on special teams, and the all out effort he gives is motivation to any player.
A player that has plenty of motivation this year to prove that he’s not a bust is a 2007 first round pick, wide receiver Craig Davis. Davis had a solid career at LSU, but was never a standout. Many analysts believed that he would be a better pro than he was a college player, but injuries have stunted his growth in the NFL, and he has yet to perform up to his first round status. With that said, he still has a lot of potential and can still develop into the type of receiver the Chargers envisioned. And, when you go down the list of players eligible for the prospects series on the Chargers roster, it’s hard to ignore Davis as the fifth best prospect in the organization. Davis showed his ability in a limited role as a rookie where he played in 14 games, starting one, and caught 20 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown. But last season was one Davis would like to forget, as he was placed on injured reserve (groin) after playing in just four games. The Chargers would like to see Davis contend for the slot position during the preseason and become the team’s primary return specialist. And judging from his performance in the team’s first preseason game against Seattle, Davis is ready to prove all the doubters wrong.The Chargers have two 2009 draft picks appearing in the top ten, fourth round defensive end Vaughn Martin (No. 6) and third round guard Louis Vasquez (No. 9). Also checking in the top 10 are promising wide receiver Legedu Naanee at No. 7, starting right tackle Jeromey Clary at No. 8 and linebacker Brandon Siler at No. 10. Just missing the cut were cornerback Paul Oliver, linebacker Antwan Applewhite and fullback Mike Tolbert.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.