Anyone familiar with the San Diego Chargers and AJ Smith knows that certain truths hold to form consistently with the enigmatic general manager.
The first would be that AJ Smith does not like investing heavily in the free agent market. Last offseason he only signed one significant name, rotation middle linebacker Kevin Burnett, while allowing multiple starters to depart.
The other fact about Smith is that he likes to surprise San Diego fans with his draft selections. Last season he chose Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English to convert into a rush linebacker in San Diego’s 3-4 system.
English was a solid player but considered by many an upper second rounder at a position not considered among San Diego’s real needs.
The year before he drafted cornerback Antoine Cason at a time when Antonio Cromartie was still considered a 10 interception ball hawk with a bright future in San Diego. Cromartie’s expected departure this offseason makes the move more logical, though Cason has yet to show any real confidence instilling abilities in his limited reps.
So far, Smith has gone with small to mid sized players throughout his first rounds, while consistently waiting for his second choice to grab trench players (linemen on either side or lead blockers). His first choices have consisted of two cornerbacks, two rush linebackers, a quarterback, and a wide receiver.
His second choices in each draft consisted of two defensive linemen, two offensive linemen, a fullback, and a safety.
Trying to project San Diego’s upcoming draft is a mystery because of the unexpected history. Will they pursue a nosetackle or a running back? How about a right tackle?
Those are the principle needs, and what the team is expected to address in round one.
But what about the unexpected options? San Diego could very well surprise and go an entirely different direction. What direction is that? Here are a few possibilities.
The ex-Buffalo San Diego regime (incorporating John Butler in addition to Smith) has gone through a laundry list of defensive backs in the early rounds. Since 2002 the team has drafted seven defensive backs in the first two rounds, including four in the first round.
Antonio Cromartie is considered all but gone, and even if proper trade fodder cannot be secured, his status as a starter should be nonexistent.
Antoine Cason showed flashes early in 2009, notching two interceptions and two passes defended in the first two games. He slipped down the depth chart as the year progressed, however, losing his nickel role to safety Steve Gregory.
Because of this, it would not surprise if San Diego waited on the more publicized positional needs to draft a cornerback in the first round in hopes that they can finally land a long-term answer opposite Jammer.
The most likely candidate in this situation would be Boise State phenom Kyle Wilson . As a little bit of a gambler, he can retain Cromartie’s big-play potential while adding in better aggressiveness and even leadership. Wilson ranks as the best choice that could still be around when San Diego steps to the podium.
One of the more convoluted possibilities for San Diego would involve the team’s wide receiving position. With Kassim Osgood expected to depart for a chance at pass-catching elsewhere and Buster Davis seeing little field time in his career, the team is top-heavy but depth light.
Should the front-seven and offensive tackle focus of the first round allow him to drop, Notre Dame’s Golden Tate might just wind up putting on a different shade of blue and gold.
He doesn’t have the prototypical San Diego size (5'11", 195 pounds). He doesn’t have the same upside (or size) as draft climber Arrelious Benn, but is the safer bet with a greater capacity to contribute early.
The pass-happy San Diego offense could make extensive use of three wide receiver sets to offset its backfield woes, playing Tate out of the slot while Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson utilize their height and jump-ball ability along the sidelines.
This also gives the team some personnel flexibility. Jackson and Floyd are both expected to be tendered, but if the team cannot strike a long-term deal with either, Tate would be in place to step in to the starting role.
It also would give the team some flexibility to possibility hold a trade chip when looking to fill other needs. Jackson is too critical to the team’s offense but Malcolm Floyd on the trading block could open up far more options than Cromartie when trying to secure a running back.
Back-to-back rush linebackers when you already have two fairly young starters with Pro Bowl caliber seasons already under their belts? It seems like bad business but plays on the notion that Merriman is still not expected to be the long-term answer on the outside.
Signing Merriman to a first and third tender does not preclude San Diego from trading the biggest question mark player on the team’s roster.
The 2004 draft showed that AJ Smith is not afraid to play poker with his options, locking up a player he has no intention of playing to bump up his trade value.
Putting the highest tender on Merriman may dispel any chance of landing a high draft pick by letting another team sign him away. The possible faux sign of confidence could give other teams reason to think San Diego has seen something behind the scenes to make them think Merriman will return to double-digit sack production.
Using the draft as a means of trade fodder is not unheard of, and therefore picking yet another rush-backer falls within the realm of possibility.
Jerry Hughes would seem the likely choice here. He has shown every sign of being a winner, is more polished than Larry English, and could also fill a leadership void at the defensive position.
Replacing the bullrush style of Merriman with a blend of speed and explosion could help the team if Jamal Williams isn’t able to spend 16 games eating up blockers.
The team as it stands should be spending its initial choice on a nosetackle (if Dan Williams is available or they have faith Terrence Cody will maintain the dedication to conditioning he showed at the combine after shedding 16 pounds) or a running back (given the currently empty backfield).
That said, waiting for later rounds to grab players like Cam Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer (a poor combine may have dropped his stock sufficiently), or LeGarrette Blount may just allow San Diego to pull off a surprise and draft a player in the first round that nobody expected.
Either way, it should be interesting when draft day rolls around.