The San Diego Chargers entered last season as a chic pick to represent the AFC in the 2012 Super Bowl.
A disappointing season from quarterback Phillip Rivers was one of several reasons, however, that the Chargers failed to live up to expectations last year, prompting some to call for the firings of general manager A.J. Smith and/or head coach Norv Turner.
As disappointing as the 2011 regular season was, however, the Chargers deserve credit for a quietly impressive off-season. While the team allowed big play wideout Vincent Jackson to leave for a huge contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they've solidified their offensive line by re-signing left tackle Jared Gaither and center Nick Hardwick to long term deals, replaced Jackson with a bevy of wideouts including former New Orleans Saint first round pick Robert Meachem and may have found the answer to their pass rushing woes by the addition of former Baltimore Raven Jarret Johnson at outside linebacker.
Despite the strong off-season, the pressure remains on Smith and Turner. This is a club that, frankly, has performed below their talent level for the past few seasons. Boasting one of the league's better quarterbacks, the Chargers' time to win is now. Anything less than a division crown could lead to Smith and Turner working elsewhere in 2013.
Five picks AJ Smith should contemplate:
S Mark Barron, Alabama (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 20)
The Chargers have been searching for consistency at strong safety ever since allowing Rodney Harrison to leave for the New England Patriots. The club gambled on oft-injured Bob Sanders last year and the former Colt standout was again unable to stay on the field. As the elite talent in a weak year at safety, Barron, frankly, shouldn't make it past the Dallas Cowboys (No. 14), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 15) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 17), each of whom could use help at the position. If he were available to the Chargers at No. 18 overall, Smith should run to the podium to announce the pick himself. In fact, Barron may be worth moving up for...
OLB Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 25)
Considering the addition of Johnson and the breakout performance of Antwan Barnes (team-leading 11 sacks in 2011), the Chargers may not feel as concerned about their pass rush as pundits expect. The team is still hoping to get something out of former first round pick Larry English, who has struggled with injuries and could see a return to form from Shaun Phillips - who dropped to just 3.5 sacks last year after averaging a robust 9.5 quarterback takedowns in each of his five previous seasons as a starter. Considering the Chargers' struggles to remain healthy at this position, however, as well as the presence of Peyton Manning in the division now, don't be surprised if San Diego again looks for a pass rusher in the first round. Mercilus is a gamble on greatness but the club will have a unique perspective on the Illini defender after investing their top pick in his former teammate, Corey Liuget, a year ago.
CB Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 39)
For all of the attention placed upon the Chargers' inconsistent pass rush, some believe a leaky secondary was the bigger problem. As such, there is some league sentiment that San Diego is targeting a cornerback early in the 2012 draft. Should the team elect to go in another direction in the first round, the Chargers could be one of the teams willing to overlook Jenkins' frighteningly poor off-field decisions and snatch him up in the second (pick No. 49 overall). Starters Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, each former first round picks themselves, struggled at times last season and with Manning's presence in the AFC West, this area of concern is only magnified. San Diego has generally steered clear of character concerns during Smith's tenure but with the club's proverbial back against the wall, the timing might be right to gamble. There is no denying Jenkins' talent and from a geographical perspective, one can't get much further from his Florida and North Alabama past than San Diego.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon (NFLDraftScout.com ranking 69)
The pressure is on 2010 first round pick Ryan Mathews as much as any Charger in 2012. Based largely on the team's belief in him, the club allowed Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert to leave via free agency over the last calendar year. By re-signing Jacob Hester, the club might have the short yardage back already in place to help the team overcome the loss of Tolbert but could use a speedy option on third down. Few backs in recent history can match James' success while at Oregon, but at only 5-08, 194 pounds he'll be best served in this capacity in the NFL. If still on the board when the Chargers are up midway through the third round (No. 78 overall), the former Duck would make a lot of sense.
DL Kheeston Randle, Texas (NFLDraftScout.com ranking: 110)
The Chargers re-signed starting defensive end Luis Castillo and nose guard Antonio Garay but the deals were only for one and two years, respectively, so the club may not see either as long-term solutions up front. The 6-5, 293 pound Randle is a hard worker and intriguing athlete who some 3-4 teams project inside at nose guard and others outside as a five-technique defensive end. That type of versatility would be sure to intrigue any club looking for depth along the defensive line, especially on the draft's third day. The Chargers' would appear to be fortunate if Randle was still on the board at No. 110 overall.