A.J. Smith took over as general manager in 2003, a year in which the Chargers earned the worst record in the NFL. In the subsequent four seasons, the Chargers have gone 46-18 -- a record only topped by the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts during that span.
Smith rebuilt the Chargers through the long-lost art of the trade. In the 2004 draft, he traded the draft rights to Eli Manning for Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Nate Kaeding and Roman Oben. In the 2006 draft, he traded a fourth-round pick for Brandon Manumaleuna, who has since become a core offensive player and earned a contract extension.
Additionally, Smith is one of the few general managers unafraid to make a deadline deal. In 2004, he traded third- and sixth-round picks for Keenan McCardell. After McCardell was released last offseason, Smith replaced him via another midseason trade that brought in Chris Chambers in exchange for a second-round selection.
“A.J. pulling that off, man, it’s incredible,” LaDainian Tomlinson said after the Chambers deal.
Where Smith’s record really sparkles is in the draft. More than half of the players on the roster (27) were drafted by Smith from 2003-2007. Nine other players were signed by Smith as undrafted free agents during that same span. Of those 36 players, a quarter of them have been voted to at least one Pro Bowl.
Not only does Smith draft impact players, but he has a knack for keeping them in San Diego. The Chargers have signed 25 players to new contracts or extensions in the last four years. Twenty-six players have deals that run through at least the 2010 season and 37 players are under contact through 2009.
“He’s a firm believer in building through the draft and taking care of our own players,” said Chargers President Dean Spanos of Smith. “A.J. and his staff have done a great job of identifying quality football players with excellent character and signing them to long-term contracts. By re-signing and extending our key, core players, we now have one of the league’s most stable rosters.”
The Chargers are so stable that Smith rarely feels the need to venture into the free agent market. Last offseason, the Chargers neglected to sign any unrestricted free agents. Smith has lured a few prominent free agents to San Diego during his tenure, including starters Mike Goff and Marlon McCree.
The only thing missing from Smith’s résumé is a playoff win. He hopes to rectify that omission on Sunday.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.