A.J. Smith Knows He Must Draft Well

GM A.J. Smith (Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

The Chargers feel a draft, but is that a good thing? The team with one playoff win in four years is looking to the upcoming dispersal of college talent to help snap a two-season skid of missing the postseason. The question is: do Chargers' fans still have faith in general manager A.J. Smith to work draft-day magic?

Smith made his name - and the Chargers a considerably better team for years to come - with his shrewd draft move back in 2004. Able to recognize how much the New York Giants wanted quarterback Eli Manning, Smith thumbed his nose at the Manning family by drafting Manning first overall despite their protests.

Smith then peddled Manning to the Giants, for a package that would ultimately bring the Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, kicker Nate Kaeding and left tackle Roman Oben.

Ah, for the good ol' days.

While that serves as Smith's shining moment, what has he done of late to bolster the club through the draft?

Uh, not much, and that can be pointed to as among the reasons the Chargers have fallen from supposed elite status to one showing a ho-hum 17-16 record since taking the field for the late playoff game, a loss to the Jets.

No general manager hits on all his picks, but Smith needs to find a bull's eye on most this April if he is hoping to bring the Chargers out from the depths of mediocrity.

Let's review last year's draft: Smith got one starter, defensive end Corey Liuget.

Let's review the 2010 draft: Smith snagged two starters in running back Ryan Mathews and inside linebacker Donald Butler.

Let's review the 2009 draft: Smith collected one starter in right guard Louis Vasquez. Although to be fair, Smith might have secured 2012 starters in defensive end Vaughn Martin and left guard Tyronne Green.

But 2009 will be remembered for what Smith did with his first pick, the 16th overall selection, in picking outside linebacker Larry English.

English has been a flop - mostly, we guess, because of injuries. But even when healthy, English seldom produced the heat on the quarterback that the team led everyone to believe he would.

And that Smith passed on USC's Clay Matthews - a future NFL defensive player of the year in helping to lead the Packers to the Super Bowl title -- to pick English out of Northern Illinois, remains a sore point with Chargers boosters.

That the English disaster came just two years after another first-round bust selected by Smith - wide receiver Buster Davis - only added to those questioning Smith's draft-day work.

But that's all in the past. Smith has to hit in April, after being active in free agency. Although as busy as Smith has been signing his own free agents and bringing in others, the Chargers still have two glaring needs: pass rusher and shutdown cornerback.

Those shortcomings could be exposed in a division featuring quarterbacks Peyton Manning (Denver), Carson Palmer (Oakland) and Matt Cassel (Kansas City).

Smith, who is seemingly on the hot seat - but we heard that last April - needs a big haul come next month. If not, Smith and coach Norv Turner might not be around next season.

Shuffling Coming on Offensive Line


OT Brandyn Dombrowski
Jamie Squire/Getty
--Brandyn Dombrowski is heading back to familiar territory. Dombrowski played guard at San Diego State, and made the team for his inside play as an undrafted free agent. But with Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman retiring, the Chargers are looking at depth at that position and have slid Dombrowski down from tackle, where he has seen most of his NFL action. Dombrowski will compete with Tyronne Green for Dielman's old starting spot, although Green is the leading candidate to run with the first team.

Dombrowski shows 15 starts in three seasons as a tackle. When the Chargers signed Jared Gaither to replace Marcus McNeill, the Chargers decided Dombrowski was needed more inside. Now Green needs to fit in with Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick.

"We just have to become really tight," Hardwick told chargers.com. "Obviously Kris and I spent a ton of years together working that out, and we can get there. I think Ty and I can get there quick, or whatever the coaches' plans are. We can get there in a hurry, but it has to be a concerted effort."

--The Chargers were awarded a compensatory pick in the seventh round, the 250th overall selection. The team has the 18th overall pick and the 18th selection in each round, in addition to the compensatory pick for a total of eight selections.

"We feel there are strengths and weaknesses (to this draft)," general manager A.J. Smith said in a conference call to Chargers' season-ticket holders. "But whether it's strong in one area or weak in another area, our job is to go out and get the best players we can. All drafts are good. There are players there and it's up to you and your organization to find the best young men, football players that you can."

--Any question of how much the Chargers' franchise might increase in worth if moving to Los Angeles were answered with the record deal the Dodgers were sold for. Although the Chargers wouldn't fetch $2.1 billion as the Dodgers did - or would they? - it doesn't appear the Spanos family is motivated to sell and relocate. Team president Dean Spanos continues to state the team is hoping to remain in town, hoping to set up shop in a Super Bowl-quality stadium located across the street from the Padres' Petco Park.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "However many draft picks you have, just make the right choices. Let's just keep at this thing and make the right selections. If we continue to make the right selections, then we're going to be OK." - Chargers general manager A.J. Smith in a conference call to season-ticket holders, asking them to keep the faith.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Chargers have been active, and that was pretty much a given with team president Dean Spanos hinting that there would changes in the approach to acquiring personnel when he decided to bring back coach Norv Turner and general manager A. J. Smith.

That said, are the Chargers better at any spot than they were when opening last season? A case could be made that they are deeper at wide receiver - pickups include Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal - but the team lost a game-changer in Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson.

And while the outside linebacker's spot looks more stout with the addition of the Ravens' Jarret Jackson, he is seen as more a run-stopper than a pass rusher; that is what the Chargers really need coming off the edge in their 3-4 alignment.

So while there's no denying the Chargers have been busy, are they better?

TEAM NEEDS

1. Outside linebacker: Despite the Chargers' moves, the team still needs someone to put heat on the quarterback. This might be addressed in the draft; the team is also hoping Larry English, a former first-round pick, can finally stay healthy and be productive. But the team's patience with English has diminished, so they still require someone to line up opposite Shaun Phillips to put pressure on the pocket.

2. Cornerback: While there hasn't been an exodus of frontline players here, the Chargers have to wonder if what they have returning doesn't raise red flags on its own. Antoine Cason is the starter, but he briefly lost his job last year. Quentin Jammer was beat consistently down the stretch last year.

3. Strong safety: The Bob Sanders experiment didn't work and Steve Gregory, the starter after Sanders went down, left for New England. The team has been seeking a replacement for Rodney Harrison for a long time and that search continues.



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