The San Diego Chargers are facing a pivotal season in 2012. Team president Dean Spanos is giving general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner one more shot at building a championship-caliber team. The pressure is high and the seats are hot.
Entering the 2012 NFL Draft, the Chargers can ill afford to waste their picks on players who don't make immediate contributions on the field. With several holes to fill at skill positions and much needed improvement across the depth chart, A.J. Smith and his staff need to add playmakers who can help get San Diego back to the postseason and in contention for a Lombardi Trophy.
The following is a list of five players the Chargers should introduce to commissioner Roger Goodell on draft day.
The Chargers have needs along the offensive line and at outside linebacker, but it's hard to argue that the most significant hole they need to fill is at strong safety.
At 6'2" and 216 pounds, Barron has good size and possesses a high football IQ. Widely regarded by scouts and draft analysts as the best safety in this year's draft class, Barron is expected to step in and be a day-one starter in the NFL.
A three-year starter, Barron compiled 215 tackles, 12 interceptions and broke up 22 passes in 38 starts for the Crimson Tide. Barron's statistics declined slightly in his senior season as did his opportunities when opponents opted to avoid his side of the field.
Barron is considered a mid to late first-round pick and very well could be available when the Chargers make their pick at 18. The Chargers will be hard pressed to find another player in the first round that offers the kind of immediate impact Barron can provide.
Now that strong safety has been addressed, the Chargers will look to improve their depth on the offensive line. The widespread perception is the Chargers need a lot of help along the line, but in reality it may not be that bad.
There is no way the Chargers will release Marcus McNeill and let Jared Gaither leave via free agency, so when training camp opens they will have a left tackle.
Kris Dielman should be back and Louis Vazquez and Jeremy Clary are under contract for 2012. That leaves only free-agent center Nick Hardwick in question, and I find it hard to believe he and the Chargers won't come to an agreement.
With that said the Chargers still need improved depth on the line. There was a perceptible difference after Marcus McNeill got hurt and before Jared Gaither took over. Brandyn Dombrowski proved once and for all that he can't be counted on to cover Philip Rivers' blind side.
Enter Zerbie Sanders from Florida State.
There is a lot not to like about Sanders in terms of technique, but what he lacks for in style he makes up for in size and versatility. Sanders was the starting right tackle for Florida State for three-and-a-half seasons before replacing injured Andrew Datko on the left side.
The Chargers desperately need players who can step up and perform in the event of an injury, and Sanders proved he could do just that in 2011.
While some teams might consider Sanders a project, the Chargers would probably have the attitude that they have done more with less. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter was able to pull guys off the street last season and have them game-ready in less than a week.
With a full training camp and preseason to work with, Sanders should be able to work out any minor technical defects that might be deterrents for other teams.
Regardless of what happens with free agent Vincent Jackson, the Chargers need to look for a speedy change-of-pace receiver who can also contribute in the return game. Arkansas' Joe Adams would be a great addition to the Chargers, who can use him as a slot receiver and a replacement for Patrick Crayton on punt returns.
Adams has a low 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds and used that speed to return four punts back for touchdowns last season. He also added 54 receptions for 652 yards and three touchdowns.
The Chargers have relied on giants like Jackson, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates to stretch the field, but Adams would give them a dangerous option underneath the coverage and bring the kind of excitement back to special teams that left with Darren Sproles.
The Chargers made a wise choice last year when they went shopping in their backyard and selected San Diego State receiver Vincent Brown in the third round. Now would be a good time to go back to that well and keep running back Ronnie Hillman in San Diego.
Hillman rushed for a ridiculous 3,243 yards on 573 carries the past two seasons at San Diego State. He also added 33 receptions for 338 yards and scored a combined 38 touchdowns rushing and receiving. At 5'10" and 190 pounds, Hillman possesses enough size to take hits up the middle and blazing speed to get around the edge and go the distance.
Ryan Mathews is constantly nicked up, and even if Mike Tolbert is retained he doesn't have the kind of burst and home-run ability that Hillman is capable of. Hillman would provide the Chargers with a legitimate third-down back and a reliable insurance policy should Mathews get injured.
One issue that has been completely neglected on this list is outside linebacker.
The Chargers have made it clear that they want to create more pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Shaun Phillips was injured for parts of last season but has been the most consistent playmaker on the Chargers' defense for several years.
Antwan Barnes led the team with 11 sacks but isn't viewed as an every-down player due to his lackluster ability to stop the run.
Larry English has shown flashes of ability but can't stay on the field long enough to inspire confidence.
Travis LaBoy proved he wasn't very good at rushing the quarterback, making tackles or in coverage.
With all things considered, outside linebacker may not be as big a need as advertised. A healthy Shaun Phillips in conjunction with Antwan Barnes in on passing downs can definitely provide adequate pass-rush.
The Chargers don't necessarily have to spend an early pick on a guy like USC's Nick Perry, who would have to be converted from a defensive end to outside linebacker.
One player getting no love from scouts and analysts is Houston's Sammy Brown. At 6'3" and 240 pounds, Brown possesses prototypical size and speed for an outside linebacker. Brown finished the 2011 season tied for second in the NCAA with 13.5 sacks and led the nation in tackles for loss with 30. The guy flat out gets behind the line of scrimmage and brings down the ball carrier.
Having played outside linebacker in Houston's 3-4 defense, it shouldn't take very long for Brown to get acclimated to the Chargers defensive scheme.