The San Diego Chargers can't afford to make mistakes in the 2013 NFL draft now that the rebuilding process is underway. All seven rounds must be navigated with precision if the Chargers plan on getting back on track.
Draft gurus have been building mock drafts even before the 2012 season concluded, and while many of them will tell you it's never too early to start mocking, this writer can only provide you with the smartest pick in terms of San Diego's positional needs.
As we near the month of April, specific names will start popping up more frequently in draft slots, but there's never a guarantee with the NFL draft.
Here are seven round-by-round selections the Chargers need to make when draft day arrives.
Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews (75)
The Chargers have no choice but to select an offensive tackle in the first round given the memory of injuries that slammed Philip Rivers' O-line this season.
Jared Gaither, who suffered from a preseason back injury, proved useless in his second stint with the Chargers, and because of his lack of effort, Gaither is reportedly being given the cold shoulder in San Diego.
In Gaither's absence, undrafted rookie Mike Harris filled in at left tackle, providing minimal relief to a line that gave up 49 sacks in 2012.
Jeromey Clary has also drawn criticism for his inability to fend off premier pass-rushers on the right side of the line.
What San Diego needs is a franchise offensive tackle, and three prospects fill that need:
Smart Picks in Round 1
Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
Oregon OT/G Kyle Long (74)
Doubling-up on O-linemen isn't such a bad idea when your offensive line couldn't even finish the season because of injuries. I take another tackle or guard here.
Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green are free agents this year, and San Diego may elect to re-sign just one of them, making the need for a guard here important as well.
Back-to-back offensive linemen isn't a flashy move for the new GM but it's the safest. Here are three guys I'd have in mind:
Smart Picks in Round 2
Lane Johnson (OT), Oklahoma
Kyle Long (OT), Oregon
Larry Warford (OG), Kentucky
NC State CB David Amerson (1)
One quarter of San Diego's secondary is aging quickly, and despite playing one of his best seasons in San Diego, 33-year-old Quentin Jammer is a toss-up to return in 2013.
Jammer played out the final year of his contract this past season, and it'll be interesting to see if the Chargers bring him back.
San Diego has lacked a shutdown corner for quite some time now, and it's beginning to seem like Antoine Cason isn't capable of filling that role just yet.
I'd like to see San Diego grab a corner in the third round, possibly even the second if there's some value there. Here are my three choices in the third round:
Smart Picks in Round 3
David Amerson, NC State
Jamar Taylor, Boise State
Tharold Simon, LSU
Florida State DT Everett Dawkins (93)
Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay had no luck plugging the middle for the Chargers last season. San Diego's run defense was the best it's been in years, but there's still room for improvement.
Kendall Reyes turned out to be a superb pickup in last year's draft, and he should continue to develop into a featured role on San Diego's D-line.
I'd like to see the Chargers add a little more depth to that defensive line and build on an impressive defensive showing in 2012. Here are my picks at DT in Round 4:
Smart Picks in Round 4
Everett Dawkins, Florida State
Cory Grissom, South Florida
Josh Boyd, Mississippi State
North Carolina ILB Kevin Reddick (48)
Takeo Spikes, who was ejected from San Diego's season finale against the Oakland Raiders, may have played the last season of his career. The veteran linebacker has done a solid job containing the middle of the defense alongside Donald Butler, but the 36-year-old has a decision to make on the status of his career.
There's no doubt Butler is ready to take over the reins for Spikes should he leave, but more depth will be needed. Jonas Mouton, Bront Bird and Andrew Gachkar have all had limited playing time, and neither has really shown they can handle a starting role.
In the fifth round, there are still some decent linebackers. Here are my smart picks in Round 5:
Smart Picks in Round 5
Kiko Alonso, Oregon
Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
A.J. Klein, Iowa State
Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham (1)
I truly don't believe that the Chargers are ready to give up on Ryan Mathews even with the kind of luck he had in 2012, but I do believe San Diego is in need of some serious depth at the position. Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle weren't cutting it in the backfield as both lacked any consistency whatsoever.
I think Mathews gets another chance in 2013 to redeem himself, but the Chargers should still plan ahead in case he re-injures that clavicle. In Round 6, there are a few guys that still catch my eye:
Smart Picks in Round 6
Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
Theo Riddick, Notre Dame
Dennis Johnson, Arkansas
Rutgers WR Mark Harrison (81)
Round 7 is the trickiest of them all. No single need really stands out here, so I'm going to roll the dice on a possible receiver or quarterback.
Wide receiver play in San Diego was a train wreck despite the Chargers bringing in Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. Both free agents were unable to gel with Philip Rivers in the aerial attack, and while I think things will get better in 2013, I would hope they bring in at least one prospect through the draft.
As for the mention of a quarterback, well, that's a last resort. Philip Rivers is an elite quarterback. He just didn't show that last season. Anyway, I don't see why it would hurt to bring a young guy in to get some exposure.
Rivers is a free agent in 2014 and already in his 30s. It's never too early to prepare for the next saga at quarterback. Here are my picks for the last round:
Smart Picks in Round 7
Mark Harrison (WR), Rutgers
Collin Klein (QB), Kansas State
Corey Fuller (WR), Virginia Tech