The 2012 NFL Draft will be a huge stepping stone for the San Diego Chargers as they attempt to return to their winning ways after a bizarre 8-8 season. Other than Vincent Jackson, the Chargers aren't in danger of losing impact players to free agency, which is why they should have a relatively strong team in 2012.
The draft will merely provide the Chargers with an opportunity to fill positions lacking in production and add depth behind aging players. Filling holes will be a top priority in earlier rounds, while depth players will likely be selected in the later rounds.
General manager A.J. Smith has a fairly decent track record drafting productive players deep into the draft, so every pick will be an important one.
Fans will argue whether offense or defense is the most critical issue to address in this year's draft, but at the end of the day it doesn't necessarily matter as much as drafting players that will make the biggest impact on this team.
Here are 10 players who must not only be on the Chargers radar in the draft, but are also an ideal fit in their system.
As more and more mock drafts and predictions are being produced, it seems the most likely candidate for the Chargers' first-round pick will be Nick Perry out of the University of Southern California.
San Diego is in desperate need of a pass-rusher and Perry fits the bill perfectly. At 6'3" and 250 pounds, Perry fared well at USC as a defensive end, but experts are projecting him to play outside linebacker in the NFL.
Perry is extremely athletic for his size and could fit well in the Chargers' defensive scheme as a blitzing linebacker on the edge—like Shawne Merriman when he was in his prime and healthy.
Fans seem to admire Perry's athleticism and his potential as a premier pass-rusher, which is why his popularity is growing in San Diego. I have no problem at all with the Chargers taking Perry with their first-round pick because his ceiling is too high to pass up.
Perry may end up being the best pass-rusher to come out of this draft, which makes him a must on the Chargers radar.
Assuming San Diego decides to go offense with their first-round pick, Ohio State University's Mike Adams is a name that often comes up for the Chargers in mock drafts as well.
Left tackle is a bit of an unknown in San Diego with rumors of Marcus McNeill likely being cut beginning to surface. Adams had a great year at left tackle for the Buckeyes and he couldn't be more ready to step in at tackle for the Chargers at the start of training camp.
Adams may not be an exciting pick in the first round, but if the Chargers are truly worried about the status of their offensive line, then drafting Adams is an absolute must.
Drafting a safety in the first round doesn't necessarily always provide immediate success for a team, but University of Alabama's Mark Barron may be the guy that could change all that if taken by the Chargers in April.
Barron is a dual threat in coverage and at the line of scrimmage. Playing in one of the top programs in the nation has given him loads of experience.
Barron isn't at the very top of San Diego's list simply because of the position needs elsewhere, but if Perry or Adams aren't available, then I don't see how the Chargers could pass on Barron.
Steve Gregory couldn't get the job done and Bob Sanders couldn't even stay on the field. Barron and Eric Weddle would be an awfully nice duo in the Chargers secondary.
In the second round, the Chargers will look to fill more holes on the offensive line. Kris Dielman suffered a concussion last season that could threaten his return in 2012. The Pro Bowl guard is one of the best in the league but another concussion next season could end his career a lot faster than he planned.
University of Georgia's Cordy Glenn is possible player San Diego could target if he slides down to them in the second round. Glenn is another polished lineman capable of stepping in right away and clearing the way for Ryan Mathews next season.
Glenn is definitely a target the Chargers have on their radar, but he's not guaranteed to still be available near the middle of the second round.
Glenn would make for a nice insurance policy in case Dielman can't go in 2012.
Continuing with the trend of O-linemen, the Chargers will have have their eye on University of Wisconsin's Kevin Zeitler as another option in the second round if Glenn is not available.
Zeitler and the rest of the line were responsible for helping Montee Ball rush right into a Heisman nomination last season and that should be some indicator as to why the Chargers might be interested in his services.
Zeitler is also capable of stepping in for an injured Dielman and should have no trouble getting used to clearing holes for Mathews.
No team can ever get enough quality offensive linemen, so Zeitler should fit well with what San Diego is looking for in the second round.
A final possibility in the second round will most likely be another offensive lineman. Assuming the Chargers pass up on Adams, then Florida State University's Zebrie Sanders is a guy the Chargers can develop to fill their hole at left tackle.
Sanders has good prototypical size for an NFL tackle and was a starter for FSU ever sine he was a freshman. Sanders has the skills to be a a good player at the next level, but he does need to improve his technique when engaging quicker pass-rushers on the edge.
In the featured highlight reel, you'll notice that Sanders has success in the running game and when dropping straight back during a pass rush, but when speedy defensive ends try to beat him outside he tends to get lazy with his technique and get beat for sacks.
Sanders may not be a sure thing right away, but a few improvements could get him on the line before the season ends.
Dwayne Allen is somewhat of a luxury pick in the second round, but if you think about it, Antonio Gates isn't going to be around forever. Sure, he has a few good years left in him, but foot injuries have been a nightmare for Gates the past couple of seasons.
Put simply, Allen is a tight end that plays like a wide receiver. At Clemson University, Allen was positioned all over the field and was a delight to have matched up one-on-one with a linebacker. Allen has very good speed and route-running for a tight end, similar to Gates in his younger years.
Typically, the Chargers use a double-tight end formation to aid the running attack with Gates getting most of the touches in the passing game, but think about the possibilities of having Allen and Gates on the field at the same time for Philip Rivers.
The New England Patriots had success with two tight ends, so why not take a page out of their book this season? Allen may be a luxury pick, but that doesn't mean he's not on the Chargers radar.
Tight end may not be a priority now, but it certainly will be in the future. Allen may be too good for the Chargers to pass up in the second round.
As the Chargers begin to enter the middle to late rounds of the draft, A.J. Smith will probably be looking to add depth to positions that could use a solid alternate who can be trusted rotating in during games.
Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason didn't have a terrible year in the Chargers secondary last season, but there were a few moments when they appeared to struggle covering receivers. Cason had to earn his starting job back after allowing Plaxico Burress to burn him for three scores in a game against the New York Jets and Jammer still hasn't lived up to the expectations that were put on him as a former fifth overall pick.
Georgia's Brandon Boykin had a strong performance in the Outback Bowl and was named MVP after a season with nine interceptions and 159 tackles.
If Boykin is available in the third round, the Chargers shouldn't hesitate to snatch him up and add depth to their average cornerback position.
Lavonte David out of the University of Nebraska is another pass-rushing linebacker the Chargers may want to look at if they decide to pass on Perry in the first round. David is a projected second- to third-round pick and may not have Perry's size, but he was very impressive in his two seasons at Nebraska.
David has a knack for getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc, as he managed to rack up 28 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks his last two seasons. David may not be a big linebacker at 6'1" and 225 pounds, but his pass-rushing skills make him a target on San Diego's radar as a second- or third-round option.
Take a look at his strength and reaction skills in his 2010 highlight reel.
Some draft experts are calling University of Florida's Chris Rainey the next Darren Sproles with the type of blistering speed he possesses. The Chargers have been looking for a third down back ever since Sproles made his way to New Orleans.
Rainey had 31 receptions and 381 receiving yards for the Gators to go along with his 861 yards rushing. If Rainey does have Sproles' qualities, then a fourth- or fifth-round pick is worth going after the speedster.
Running back is another luxury pick for the Chargers, but if Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester don't return next season, then the Chargers may need to find a suitable replacement.
I personally would love to add a guy like Chris Polk out of the University of Washington to this team or even a guy like LaMichael James from Oregon University. But again, these are luxuries the Chargers may not want to go after or need.
Rainey, however, is a player that can give you a pass-catcher out of the backfield and even a slot receiver with his type of speed. Not to mention he could be a nice weapon on an end around or reverse.
Rainey is a versatile running back that should be on every team's radar deep in the draft and the Chargers should definitely be on the lookout for him late.