Chargers ace the draft with good scouting and a little luck

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Getting Kendall Reyes in Round 2 left the Chargers feeling they were on a draft roll. (US Presswire)  
Getting Kendall Reyes in Round 2 left the Chargers feeling they were on a draft roll. (US Presswire)  

It wasn't that long ago that the San Diego Chargers were deep in talent and on top of their division. But a spate of injuries, defections and underwhelming drafts conspired to turn them into also-rans with an annoying habit of beating themselves.

You can look it up. They would've won last year's AFC West if Philip Rivers hadn't fumbled a snap while trying to kill the clock vs. Kansas City. And they could've won the year before if their special teams didn't spring more leaks than the Costa Concordia.

So the Chargers need something, anything, to shake things up, and they just got it. Thanks to smart free-agent acquisitions and an especially shrewd draft they have the players again to challenge defending champion Denver in the AFC West.

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That doesn't mean they will. It just means they can, which means general manager A.J. Smith did what he was supposed to do this offseason -- namely, return talent to San Diego.

"I think we're better if you look at the total 'paper' exercise," said Smith, "but I'll cast judgment in August. We're not done yet."

Consider that a warning. There's an urgency in San Diego, with the club missing the playoffs the past two seasons, producing 17 victories in its last 33 starts, and its owner putting coach Norv Turner on double-secret probation.

The Chargers must win, and they must win now. After what Smith and his staff accomplished last weekend, they have a chance. All I know is that San Diego had one of the best drafts anywhere, and the time is right.

"I kinda like the pieces that are coming together," said Smith.

So do I. So I had him walk me through the 2012 NFL Draft, round by round, to detail what he and the Chargers accomplished. This is his story:

First round: Melvin Ingram, LB, South Carolina (18)

With the 18th pick, the Chargers hoped to find an impact player on defense -- with pass rusher their first priority. Lucky for them the draft was top heavy at the position. Luckier still that they fell into Ingram, whom Turner called "the most complete, versatile linebacker in the draft" and who somehow fell to them.

Smith: "We had a cluster of nine players we were looking at, including three we didn't think would be there, but they weren't mixed. It was all defense. You have to be prepared for a wide range because everybody's probably looking at the same players you are. Of course, if you have enough of them, you're fine.

"As you know now, one of the bonus ones fell down. It was Melvin Ingram, and that trumped everything. That doesn't happen all the time, but it happens once and awhile to all of us in different rounds. And when it happens in the first round, and that's how you kick your draft off ... you're ecstatic -- especially because I was never tempted to trade up.

"There were some rumors out there that we were prepared to go off after [Alabama safety Mark] Barron and that we had a package -- because I have a history of that going after certain players. But the second part of it was that, if we weren't successful there, that I was going to go down 10 picks and go after [Harrison] Smith of Notre Dame.

"But that was not the game plan. I wouldn't pay the price for Barron, and I felt Smith would be gone at the end of the first. And, if he didn't, he would be at the top of the second, and you'd have to go up to the second and pay a price to participate in that. So we targeted another safety as the third-best option, and somebody we really liked who was probably not a first rounder.

"In our realistic cluster, there was no way Ingram would be there. I thought if there was any activity for pass rushers he surely would be in the mix. I noticed there were a couple of pass rushers that went, and they weren't Ingram, and I would say the excitement started to come at about 16, where the Jets picked. You're thinking with the Jets making a move here, it's got to be Ingram ... or somebody else ... but I think they're going pass rusher. We don't know. We guess like everybody else. But then when they pick the other guy [Quinton Coples], we got awfully excited because we thought there may be a chance.

"The minute someone picks someone else, and you're on the clock what happened in our room. ... I haven't experienced that in quite a while. I mean, you kick off the draft, and you're off and running. It was fantastic. I thought he would go to maybe three other teams, but he's such a great player in our eyes that sometimes you say, 'We'd like this guy or this guy,' but then you say, 'We can't pass this up.' I worried about more teams jumping in because of who he was and what he can do. I thought he was in another category where sometimes people say, 'You know what, we're not letting him go.' But it didn't happen."

Second round: Kendall Reyes, DT, UConn (49)

Another player with first-round ability, Reyes somehow slipped into the middle of the second when San Diego again came to the rescue. A team captain who produced 31.5 tackles for losses, he's not especially big, but he is perfectly suited to the Chargers' defense -- someone who can move up and down the line and disrupt opponents without making sacks.

Smith: "He was a targeted player. We had him right about where we thought he would be. Maybe he would go in the bottom of the first, and I say that because we don't know what's going on in draft rooms. So I started to worry. He was a targeted guy, but I thought: I'm not going to go up and get him; I'm not going to make a move. If he's there he's there. We would like to have that happen, but we had plenty of other players in mind, also.

"Again, it was defense, and, when it came our time, here he comes. And now we're looking around the draft room, and saying, 'OK, that's the first guy [Ingram], and now we have Reyes. It's like we're on a roll here. This is the greatest feeling in the world to start off a draft."

Third round: Brandon Taylor, SS, LSU (73)

The third-best safety in the draft, Taylor was expected to be taken in the second round. But he wasn't, so Smith and the Chargers swung into action, producing their first -- and only -- deal, moving up five spots to gain Miami's pick in exchange for San Diego's third-round choice (78) and a sixth. A physical safety who has range, is a sure tackler and has adequate speed, Taylor is expected to challenge Atari Bigby for the strong-safety position.

Smith: "This was a guy who was targeted, and we were going to go on the attack at the top of the third. Our feeling was that if he's not gone in the second, we're not going to be waiting at 16 twiddling our thumbs. We're making our move.

"We went up top [looking to trade], and I won't tell you what the compensation was, but it was obviously a little bit higher than what we got with Miami. But no one was interested. So I'm sweating this out because I really, really, would like this to happen because he's special. And, lo and behold, we got a partner with Miami, and the compensation was lower. So, it means we were without a sixth-round pick this year, but I had no problems with it and the staff had no problems with it.

"[Taylor] is not a first-rounder coming into the NFL, but he may very well be great, who knows? He can run support. He's extremely competitive. He's football smart. He's aggressive. He's not a cautious guy. I just like his overall game. And, hopefully, he'll be able to get in the mix at strong safety. It's a never-ending search, and if somebody can step in and be 'The Guy,' I'll be happy."

Fourth round: LaDarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette (110)

With Antonio Gates slowed by injuries the past two seasons, consider it wise for San Diego to look for another pass-receiving option at tight end -- with Green that option. He's big (6-foot-6), fast (he runs a 4.45 40) and has a 35-inch vertical leap. He's also productive, producing five catches for 121 yards in his final performance against San Diego State.

Smith: "I wanted to have a balanced draft with a heavy emphasis on defense in the first three rounds. So now we're going to flip to balance it. Green is a rare receiving threat who fits the model of our offense -- like an Antonio Gates. He's not a blocker, and he isn't going to be a blocker. But he has rare skills with speed, and we like his height, his hands, catch radius and burst. We think he's a smart kid, but we'll see how quickly he picks it up.

"If he comes up really, really quickly we'll have a lot of additional weapons there. We're thinking: Could it be Gates and LaDarius Green? Not at the beginning of the year, but [we'll tell him to] take a half a year to feel your way along.

"This was a guy we wanted to add that was a great talent, and we thought he would be somewhere around (rounds) three or four. So we grabbed him and, hopefully, great things will happen. This was a guy who is very, very talented that we thought about for a long time, someone we followed and thought had everything we were looking for. And we got him."

Fifth round: Johnnie Troutman, G, Penn State (149)

Troutman gained attention this week when it was learned that injuries will sideline him this season. That came as no surprise to the Chargers, who believe that Troutman can have an impact when healthy. They didn't have a sixth-round pick and chose so late in the seventh rounds they feared he might be gone when it was their turn. So they acted when they could, drafting him with 2013 in mind, and here's one reason why: Scouting reports say he didn't allow a sack in 32 starts, and that'll draw the attention of a club that just lost guard Kris Dielman.

Smith: "We wanted to spread it around between a guard and a center, if we could, and we had him for the future. He's a big guy who has the ability to help us at guard and who can learn. We're looking for depth to add in there and try to get three-deep again.

"You heard me say this last year: We need better depth; we need to have backups. We need layers of this, and we think he's a guy who can be a backup. I'm willing to invest a year to see what we're going to get. It's like Jimmy Johnson says, 'Do you want to take some chances and build your team? Or do you want to be cautious and play middle of the road?' I don't roll that way."

Seventh round: David Molk, C, Michigan (226); Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State (250)

Molk was named the nation's best center last year, was a two-time All Big Ten choice and, at the annual NFL scouting combine, produced more reps on the bench press than any center. So why did he stay on the board? Because some clubs consider him undersized (6-1, 298) for the position. The Chargers didn't and may have themselves another steal. If nothing else, they have a backup they can groom behind Nick Hardwick.

With their last pick, they chose Baker, whom they can sit behind Ryan Mathews. He has a history of injuries and costly fumbles, but he ran for 1,201 yards in 2010 and could challenge Curtis Brinkley for carries. If nothing else, he's worth the shot at this spot.

Smith: We wanted a guard and center in this draft, and [with Molk] we felt he's going to take a hit and going to roll because he's short ... and because he's this and because he's that. But we like him. We don't care about it. Plus, I'm not taking him in the fourth or fifth rounds.

"We had a strategy, and he fell right into it. Down he comes, everybody's talking about the height and the short arms, but we wanted him, and I didn't think he'd be there by the time we picked. It was a dream to get a guy like him to put behind Nick Hardwick, and let's just see. Now he's in competition with [backup Colin] Baxter, but this guy is more talented. So what happens? We're about to find out.

"With Baker, he split time this year and lost his job because he couldn't hold on to the football. But we think he's got all the talent in the world to be a back who could grow and be part of our program. If he wants to shock the hell out of us, do great and end up being on the football team as our third-or-second [option], my feeling is: Feel free.

"It's the seventh round. We just liked his explosiveness, his hands and his ability, and there he was. There were a lot of running backs throughout the draft, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of those back-end guys shock some people."

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