San Diego Chargers: 10 Draft Day Steals and Undrafted Players to Hit It Big
Time and again, football history will remind us in its own not so subtle and bone crunching way of the underdogs, the overlooked and those tiny specks in cosmos aching to burst into shooting stars in a far larger and brighter constellation.
There are the players who supposedly were too slow and too short. Those who were too big and too small. There are players whose pants were not bleached enough or who had missed a certain Star Trek episode.
Whereas scouts have always fiddled with billions of numbers, the scales are balanced by the billions of horse manure excuses as to why not to draft a certain player. More than not, the scouts get it right. The 99 percent success rate would justify their paychecks to the NFL brass every time.
It's the one percent they miss that will continue to rise up like Jason Vorhees, chainsaw in hand, to come back and torment the naysayers.
There's sixth-round pick Tom Brady, now flashing three Super Bowl rings and measuring for his bust at the NFL Hall of Fame.
There's Roger Staubach, a 10th-round pick in the 1964 draft.
There's Hall of Famer George Blanda, the 119th overall pick in the 1949 draft.
Needless to say, the Chargers have had their fair share of diamonds in the rough.
Depicted here are 10 current and former Bolts who would garner little more than a laugh from the NFL's scouting departments. Years later, these same players have garnered paychecks that have them laughing all the way to the bank and Hawaii at season's end.
Dan Fouts, 3rd Round, 64th Pick, 1973
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The greatest Chargers quarterback in history is the highest draft pick on this list.
Somehow, 19 school records at the University of Oregon didn't convince scouts to waste a top-50 pick on Fouts.
Six Pro Bowls and a Hall of Fame bust in Canton later, the surviving scouts have now recognized the error of their ways to the degree that it might want them to join their former colleagues six feet under so they can collectively turn in their graves together.
Though he was deemed merely worthy enough by scouts to be a 64th pick in a draft, there is little doubt that he ranks far ahead of that—in the history of all-time greats to have ever played on a gridiron.
Shaun Phillips, 4th Round, 98th Pick, 2004
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Originally, Shaun Phillips had chosen to attend Purdue University largely because of his expressed wish to catch balls as a tight end from a certain quarterback named Drew Brees.
Luckily for Charger fans, he was forced to sit out his freshman year due to academic issues, which would effectively shelve his ambitions to play on offense. Upon his return, he was assigned to the defense, where he would rack up a school record 33.5 sacks, along with three All-Big 10 honorable mentions.
His dominance in the Big 10 didn't convince pro scouts to make a visit to the nearest Lenscrafters, as Shaun Phillips was drafted 98th overall in 2004.
He's thanked the Chargers for their vote of confidence by recording 56.5 quarterback sacks, 19 forced fumbles and four interceptions.
The Chargers thank Phillips for his service and the scouts for continuing to low-ball prospects from Purdue. And to think that they might have learned something after Brees was only a second-round pick.
Darren Sproles, 4th Round, 130th Pick, 2005
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His resume after leaving his alma mater Kansas State?
Twenty-three school records, 11th on the all-time college rushing yards list, sixth most in all-purpose yards in NCAA history. Rushing leader nationwide in 2003 with 1,986 yards. Fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2003.
Shouldn't that be a no-brainer for scouts?
Only for the Chargers' scouts with brains, as it turned out.
Whereas the Mannings and Michael Vick were obviously too big to fail, in the eyes of NFL scouts, Darren Sproles here fell victim to the "too small to succeed" mindset. His reward was the 130th pick overall in the 2005 draft.
To make matters more complicated, he would be given the honors of playing third-string running back behind the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner.
This was of little concern to Darren Sproles.
In his career, Sproles has rushed, received and returned with shocking efficiency, as his 327 total yards game against the Colts in the 2009 playoffs might attest.
At 5'6" and 180 pounds, not only has Mr. Sproles proven his many doubters wrong, but he is the literal embodiment of the saying "less is more."
Rodney Harrison, 5th Round, 145th Pick, 1994
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The magic number here on the radar should have been 28.
Twenty-eight tackles, that is.
Not in a season. Not in a month.
In a game.
This was the mind-blowing stat Harrison would achieve in a game versus Western Kentucky in 1993. You'd be pressed to find anybody accumulating that many tackles on a Playstation, let alone on an actual gridiron.
Twenty-eight should have been the magic number.
Instead, scouts chose to look at the magic words, here being Western Illinois, which would earn Rodney Harrison the 145th overall pick of the 1994 draft.
Very much like hard-hitting Rodney Harrison would make many receivers and tailbacks eat their mouthpieces, he would eventually make the experts eat their words.
The founding father and initial member of the 30/30 club, players with 30 career interceptions and 30 sacks, Rodney Harrison will have an easier time convincing sports journalists that an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will require no mental dissection.
Michael Turner, 5th Round, 154th Pick, 2004
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Another casualty of schools with smaller athletic programs, Michael "Burner" Turner would smash numerous records at alma mater Northern Illinois before he was found worthy of a late pick by the Charger brass.
At 5'10" and 245 pounds, the human answer to the butterball was used primarily on special teams, his chances of beating out LT as solid as a three-legged dog outrunning a hurricane.
Years later, the Indianapolis Colts, of course, would wish that he had been a mutt stranded in a hurricane.
In the year 2005, San Diego would help beat the undefeated 13-0 Colts in Indy behind Turner's 113 yards and game-clinching 83-yard run off the bench, denying the Colts a dream at perfection.
The encore would follow a couple of years later. Subbing for an injured Tomlinson in a 2008 divisional playoff game versus the Colts, Turner would gain 71 yards on 17 carries that would help the Bolts upset Indy, even without starters Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Lorenzo Neal, and later Phillip Rivers.
Though Michael Turner would remain in the shadows of LT throughout his stay in San Diego and not reveal his full potential until becoming an Atlanta Falcon, Charger fans saw his value quite clearly.
Marion Butts, 7th Round, 183rd Pick, 1989
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The future two-time Pro Bowler out of Florida State who tipped the scales at 250 pounds on a 6'1" frame did not convince Pro scouts that he could succeed as a running back.
Projected by many as a fullback with possible special teams duties, only the Chargers would take a chance on him, picking him in the seventh round in the 1989 draft.
Suffice it to say, the returns were more than satisfactory.
Florida State's former offensive coordinator described Marion Butts as a "John Dillinger with headgear on."
The offense could easily afford to burn the playbook for the running game with Butts in the backfield.
The procedure was simple. Hand off to Butts, let the battering ram break through the defensive line and enjoy watching the bodies fly off the pile in all those feeble attempts by the defense to gang tackle No. 35.
In his five years with the Bolts, Butts would rush for 4,297 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Although hampered by injuries, Marion Stevenson Butts would substantially help with the Chargers' revival in the early '90s that would eventually culminate with the 1994 AFC Conference Title and a Super Bowl appearance in 1994, when Butts was no longer a part of the Bolts.
Darren Bennett, Undrafted, 1995
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When Darren Bennett decided to retire from a successful Aussie-rules football career in 1993, he decided it was time to take stock in himself and live a normal life for a change.
So he would get married. Together he and his wife would honeymoon in California.
When he reached California, he would enjoy just being a tourist.
Like everybody else, he would go to Sea World, the zoo, Mission Bay, Coronado Beach and save the best for last...trying out for the Chargers.
When Bennett started his NFL career for the Bolts in 1995, little did the football world know what rabbit would pop out of the Chargers' helmet.
Following a Pro Bowl year that saw him average 44.7 yards per punt, the world knew very well who Darren Bennett was.
Even more entertaining for Chargers fans was watching him on the gridiron after the punt. At 6'5" and over 230 pounds, Bennett quickly taught punt returners a simple wisdom: Make a wide circle around him or get mauled.
He would add another Pro Bowl to his resume in 2000, when he'd average over 46 yards per punt, something not even punting great Ray Guy had ever accomplished in his career.
Whereas a lot of people in the NFL loved calling Darren Bennett a gimmick when he debuted in 1995, Charger fans would simply call him one of the best signings they'd ever made.
Kris Dielman, Undrafted 2003
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Kris Dielman would turn out to be one of three superb undrafted athletes the Chargers would sign in 2003.
Also known as "The Real Deal," Kris would switch between playing offense and defense throughout his college career at Indiana. This unselfish service to his team quite possibly prompted scouts to draw the wrong conclusions, being that he could not excel at either side of the ball. That, and an ankle injury that would limit his mobility on the field in his senior year.
What they failed to see was an excellent football player, a player who would not even be invited to the players' combine after his senior year.
Dielman would be left undrafted.
The rest of his story is one for the silver screen.
After graduating from IU, only one team called him, hoping he could play defensive end for them.
That team would be the Chargers.
Head coach Marty Schottenheimer would convert him to an offensive lineman, and the rest, as they say, is history—a history Dielman himself is continuing to write with four Pro Bowl selections and counting.
Other names will be more recognizable to the Charger brand, but when it comes to dedication, perseverance and loyalty, Kris Dielman will be remembered as one of the finest, not to mention most skilled, men to ever don a Bolts jersey.
Kassim Osgood, Undrafted, 2003
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Another star to fall under the radar.
In college, Kassim would set a record with 376 yards receiving in a game against Northern Iowa while with Cal Poly/San Obispo. Never mind that entire teams would be pressed these days to achieve that total yardage in a game—some scouts must have misread the number and found a decimal in there somewhere.
Later, as a transfer at San Diego State, Osgood was named All-First Team Mountain West in 2002, when he'd catch 108 catches for 1,552 yards in 2002.
Numbers, shnumbers. Kassim would go undrafted.
Today, Osgood is known as one of the best special teams players the game has ever known.
Although he has yet to reach his full potential as a wide receiver, this is a player who's been an asset wherever he's played.
Antonio Gates, Undrafted, 2003
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The crown jewel of undrafted players.
This was the football player that almost never was.
As a star power forward in basketball at Kent State, Gates would average 20.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in leading his team to an unlikely run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament of 2002.
Unimpressed by his 6'4" build at power forward, no NBA team would take a chance on him.
Which made his super-stardom in football all the more remarkable.
Shrugging off the snubs, Gates would arrange a road tour that would find him showcasing his skills for 19 NFL teams, the first being the Chargers.
After working out for the Chargers, the other 18 teams never received their chance.
Now a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a certain future Hall of Famer, Antonio Gates will probably go down in history as the only player to have never played a down of college football and yet (convincingly) make it to Canton.