The NFL season is in full swing, and several rookies around the league are already starting to distinguish themselves from the pack in their inaugural campaigns.
A.J. Smith is known as a shrewd talent evaluator when it comes to the NFL Draft, but his recent hauls have not done much to support that belief. With the 2009 NFL Draft five months in the past (and rookies having already gotten three games under their belts), now is a good time for a preliminary examination of the Chargers' 2009 draft picks and whether Smith could have done any better based on the players available at the time.
Keep in mind that these rookies are only three games into their young careers, so it is far too early to label any single player a bust or a star. This is only an exercise in hindsight based on what we know so far.
First Round (16th Overall)
Actual Pick: Larry English, OLB (Northern Illinois)
Better Options: Michael Oher, OT (Ole Miss) or Rey Maualuga, ILB (USC)
Analysis: Shawne Merriman's recent legal and health troubles give some validity to Smith's pick of a pass-rushing outside linebacker in English, but he has been nearly invisible in the first three games of the season, only registering four tackles and not even getting close to any opposing quarterbacks.
At the same time, Oher (selected 23rd overall by the Baltimore Ravens) has positioned himself as an early Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate with his outstanding play anchoring the Ravens offensive line. He would have been a great option for a Chargers team that was weak along the right side of the offensive line even before the starting lineup was struck by the injury bug.
Many people thought Maualuga (38th, Cincinnati Bengals) would be the pick for the Chargers entering the draft, yet he inexplicably fell to the second round, possibly due to some character issues (who can forget his little dance behind ESPN's Erin Andrews during preseason warm-ups last year?). The Bengals must have been absolutely elated to see him fall all the way to them in the second round, especially after getting the equally talented Andre Smith with their top pick. He has been an enforcer in the middle of their linebacking crew, having already forced two fumbles while playing alongside his college teammate Keith Rivers to create a formidable young wrecking crew at linebacker.
Verdict: At this point in time, Oher or Maualuga would have been a much better choice in the first round than English.
Third Round (78th Overall)
Actual Pick: Louis Vasquez, OG (Texas Tech)
Analysis: So far, it looks like Smith hit this one right on the head. Everyone at Charger Park seems to be raving about this guy, and they believed in him enough to cut presumptive starter Kynan Forney to pave the way for him to enter the starting lineup. He has been struggling to stay healthy lately, but he has not shown anything yet to second-guess this pick compared to the rest of the board.
Verdict: So far, so good.
Fourth Round (113th Overall)
Actual Pick: Vaughn Martin, DE Western Ontario
Analysis: There has yet to be much production from the players drafted around the time of the 320-pound Martin, who is oozing with raw potential due to his limited experience in the game. If he can adjust to the level of play in the NFL, he could be a star, so this pick could remain the same in retrospect until further information is available.
Verdict: So far, so good.
Supplemental Fourth Round (133rd Overall)
Actual Pick: Tyronne Green, OG (Auburn)
Better Option: Duke Robinson, OG (Oklahoma) or Herman Johnson, OT (LSU)
Analysis: If the Chargers were looking to draft two offensive linemen, they could have had their pick of massive specimens in Robinson (163rd, Carolina Panthers) and Johnson (167th, Arizona Cardinals), who both would have been better choices than Green. On a team struggling to run the ball, either would have been a welcome addition, as they are both maulers who would help establish the running game in order to open up the field for the vertical passing game with Philip Rivers.
Verdict: Right position, wrong player.
Supplemental Fourth Round (134th Overall)
Actual Pick: Gartrell Johnson, RB (Colorado State)
Better Option: Johnny Knox, WR (Abilene Christian)
Analysis: This is a bit of a luxury pick, but it is just about time to give up on former first rounder Buster Davis, and Knox (140th, Chicago Bears) has been an early standout as quarterback Jay Cutler's new favorite target (even over former college teammate Earl Bennett). With the Chargers becoming a pass-first team this year, Knox would have been another weapon to add to an already-potent offense. Plus, with Johnson having been picked up by the New York Giants after the Chargers tried to stash him on their practice squad, this pick could have been considered a true do-over.
Verdict: Swing and a miss.
Fifth Round (148th Overall)
Actual Pick: Brandon Hughes, CB (Oregon State)
Better Option: Myron Pryor, DT (Kentucky)
Analysis: Hughes is a talented player and an even better person (see my interview with him here) but he joins an already talented secondary stocked with three former first round picks in Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie, and Antoine Cason. Because of this, he may struggle to see the field outside of on special teams any time soon. Pryor (207th, New England Patriots) is a big body who can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, and his versatility would have been extremely helpful after Jamal Williams went down with a season-ending triceps injury.
Verdict: Decent pick, but could have been better.
Sixth Round (189th Overall)
Actual Pick: Kevin Ellison, S (USC)
Analysis: There is no denying that the Chargers need help at safety, and Ellison is the kind of physical presence that could have a big impact in their secondary. He doesn't have the best straight-line speed, but he has the instincts to be a starter on this team by the end of the season.
Verdict: Good pick. There wasn't really any other option.
Seventh Round (224th Overall)
Actual Pick: Demetrius Byrd, WR (LSU)
Better Option: Rashad Jennings, RB (Liberty)
If he gets back to full health, there is no denying how great the pick of Byrd can turn out to be. Originally believed to be an early-round pick before his car accident just days before the draft, he was in the hospital when the Bolts pulled the trigger on him with their final pick. But due to depth issues this season, Jennings (250th, Jacksonville Jaguars) would have been a better pick. Jennings is a talented power back with enough speed to be a featured runner at this level once he adjusts to the level of competition, and would have been a good insurance policy in the likely event of another LaDainian Tomlinson injury.
Verdict: The jury is out until Byrd hits the field.
Overall, A.J. Smith gets a C- for this draft, although there is still plenty of time for this grade to change drastically one way or the other. These players are only three games into their young careers, and this rookie class in general has not had very many impact players this early in the season.
However, this draft seems similar to Smith's drafts over the last few years, as he seems to be living more off of his reputation from previous drafts than building on it every single year. He may have had some major successes when it comes to the draft, but for every Shawne Merriman, there seems to be a Buster Davis as well.
Hindsight is 20-20, but remember that this is only an extremely preliminary ranking; only time will tell if this draft turns out to be "Lights Out" or a "Bust."