2011 NFL Draft: Breaking Down The Needs For The San Diego Chargers

Chris Eggemeyer@@chriseggemeyerCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2011

2011 NFL Draft: Breaking Down The Needs For The San Diego Chargers

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    NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  2010 NFL Draft prospects pose for a group photo with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell along with former and current NFL Players including Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Dan Marino, Lawrence Taylor, Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders, Joe Montana, Fl
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    The San Diego Chargers are moving along at a break-neck pace so far this offseason, starting with the loss of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski.

    Practice squad additions have been made, contract discussions are likely underway and A.J. Smith and the rest of the Chargers' upper management are putting together draft boards and free agent strategies.

    Obviously we can't tackle all of this at once, so let's take it piece by piece, starting with the biggest event of them all: the 2011 NFL Draft.

    It may not seem like it, considering how San Diego played on both sides of the ball last year, but the Chargers have a lot of needs to address.

    What needs, you might ask? Well, here they are.

Defensive End

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    SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 29:  Matt Cassel #7 of the Kansas City Chiefs throws as he is rushed by Jacques Cesaire #74 of the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on November 29, 2009 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    As it stands, the San Diego Chargers have two defensive ends headed towards free agency this offseason: Travis Johnson and Jacques Cesaire.

    Regardless, though, the Chargers could use an upgrade at the position.

    As it stands, the two starting defensive ends are Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire, only one of which is relatively solid.

    Under Ron Rivera, the Chargers were essentially forced to run a rotation on the defensive line because of the lack of a solid, consistent defensive end, and the draft is the perfect place to work on that.

    Look for the Chargers to target guys like J.J. Watt or Cameron Heyward in the first round, or possibly mid and late-round talent like Nebraska's Jared Crick or Stanford's Sione Fua.

Strong Safety

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    DENVER, CO - JANUARY 2:  Safety Eric Weddle #32 of the San Diego Chargers makes an interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Brandon Lloyd #84 of the Denver Broncos as they battle in the air with safety Steve Gregory #28 during the first quarter a
    Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

    The Chargers had a hard time finding consistency at the strong safety position this year. It appeared that Steve Gregory had the job, but an unfortunate suspension and a small injury that followed it kept him out of the starting line up for a few weeks, making room for Paul Oliver, who proved that he is not much better than a back up talent.

    Sure, the Chargers expended a draft pick on Darrell Stuckey last year, but Stuckey failed to make it onto the game day active roster on more than one occasion, and his showing in the preseason wasn't overly impressive.

    There isn't a whole lot of high end talent in the draft this year at the safety position, but there are some solid mid-round prospects like North Carolina's Deunta Williams and West Virginia's Robert Sands. Both could turn out to be good solutions for the strong safety position, and, in the meantime, both could contribute to the special teams units.


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    SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 12:  Antoine Cason #20 of the San Diego Chargers returns a kick during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium on December 12, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    I know that most of you are saying that the Chargers don't need another cornerback, that they are set with Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, but I'll reiterate something I said in a previous article.

    The Chargers have good cornerbacks, but good isn't good enough.

    The Chargers will be in a great position to grab potential upgrades at the cornerback position, or at the very least to grab a guy who can fit into the nickel spot should the Chargers decide to move away from Donald Strickland (which would be strange, but not overly surprising).

    Look for the Chargers to target someone like Aaron Williams from Texas or Brandon Burton from Utah, two players who could certainly be available in the second and third rounds.

Running Back Depth

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    DENVER - JANUARY 02:  Running back Darren Sproles #43 of the San Diego Chargers rushes against the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Chargers defeated the Broncos 33-28.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Gett
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    As unfortunate as it is, San Diego Chargers fans may have seen the final days of Darren Sproles playing in blue, yellow and white.

    After playing an underwhelming season while getting paid the franchise tag tender that the Chargers extended to him last offseason, it seems totally possible that San Diego could be letting the lightning bug go in favor of a less expensive option.

    While the Chargers could easily elevate a guy like Curtis Brinkley from the practice squad, the 2011 draft actually seems like a great environment to pick up a replacement guy.

    Assuming that the Chargers want to go with a speed guy with good hands and return skills, they could look at a couple of players: Shane Vereen (Cal), Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State) or Jordan Todman (UConn).

    I also have to add in there a jack-of-all-trades type player that could fit this role: Randall Cobb (Kentucky). Cobb has the size, speed and athleticism to play that shifty backfield role, but his experience as a wide receiver in college could mean that the Chargers could build special packages around him like they used to around Darren Sproles.

Tight End Depth

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    DENVER - JANUARY 02:  Wide receiver Randy McMichael #81 of the San Diego Chargers makes a 17 yard first down reception as linebacker Mario Haggan #57 of the Denver Broncos moves in for the tackle at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver,
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    I expect this situation to change, but it seems as though, for now, both Randy McMichael and Kris Wilson will enter the free-agent market this offseason, leaving only Cory Sperry and Antonio Gates at the tight end position.

    This is not good.

    Sure, Cory Sperry has proven himself a good blocker and a good pass catcher, but he isn't the kind of player that will really open up the playbook for two tight end sets, and he is certainly not a good enough replacement for Antonio Gates when he is hurt.

    Once again, the depth in this draft class at tight end isn't great, but there is some promising mid-round talent.

    The front runner as far as fan perspective goes right now is Kyle Rudolph (Notre Dame), who is far and away the best tight end in the draft this year. He blocks well, he catches well and he doesn't seem to have character issues (you can never underestimate that).

    I'd like to put forward another option, though. Take a look at D.J. Williams (Arkansas). His stats won't impress you, but he is a hard worker, he is loved by his coaches and teammates and he has a lot of talent for a guy that doesn't really touch the ball that often.

    A little while behind Antonio Gates could turn Williams into a great tight end.

Quarterback Depth

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    SAN DIEGO - OCTOBER 24:  Billy Volek #7 of the San Diego Chargers during warm up against the New England Patriots at Qualcomm Stadium on October 24, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    This one is another one of those free agent problems that is really going to hurt fans of the San Diego Chargers: Billy Volek is set to become a free agent this year.

    Widely recognized as the best backup in the League, Volek has the opportunity to leave the Chargers and pursue a starting job in a couple of cities this year (mostly as a stop-gap type player, but hey, he'll get to start).

    Considering that the Chargers traded away former third string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and cut ties with fifth-round pick Jonathan Crompton, the Chargers should be on the lookout for a new guy to sit behind Phillip Rivers.

    My recommendation: Scott Tolzien (Wisconsin). His draft stock isn't terribly high right now, which is great, because it means that a considerably good quarterback will still be a available in the mid and low rounds (for those of you who doubt Tolzien, see the notes on the East-West Shrine game, because he's apparently impressing a lot of people).

Inside Linebacker Depth

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    INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 28:  Pierre Garcon #85 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball while defended by Stephen Cooper #54 of the San Diego Chargers during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 28, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by A
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The top three inside linebackers for the San Diego Chargers are all set to enter free agency, which means something has to give.

    The Chargers will likely keep Stephen Cooper, who has been rock solid in the middle of the defense, but they will be faced with an interesting decision between Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler (Two things: yes, I am assuming that they will choose between the two, and I think it's going to be Burnett).

    Even if they do manage to keep all three, the Chargers are going to need a fourth simply for depth purposes, and there is no guarantee that Donald Butler (San Diego's third-round pick in 2010) will return well from the torn achilles tendon that kept him out for his entire rookie season.

    A lot of people are already talking about him, so I'm going to go ahead and endorse the idea: Look for the Chargers to target Oregon inside linebacker Casey Matthews. He'll need a little bit of time to develop, but he could have a bright future.

Outside Linebacker

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    SAN DIEGO - DECEMBER 05:  Darrius Heyward-Bey #85 of the Oakland Raiders is pursued by Larry English #52 of the San Diego Chargers in the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium on December 5, 2010 in San Diego, California. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 28
    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    I hate to call bust already, but the future isn't looking so bright for former first-round draft pick Larry English.

    Aside from him, though, the Chargers really don't have much in the way of playmakers at the outside linebacker position. Shaun Phillips tore it up this year, but the other side of the ball was much less secure, with the job eventually falling to former undrafted rookie free agent Antwan Applewhite after injuries to Larry English and Jyles Tucker.

    Considering all of this, and considering that adding another fierce pass rusher to compliment Phillips would bode well for the defense, the Chargers will likely target an outside linebacker in the draft this year.

    Where they plan on making the move is up in the air, but potential targets could range from Akeem Ayers (UCLA) to Jeremy Beal (Oklahoma) to Sam Acho (Texas) to Thomas Keiser (Stanford).

Offensive Line

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    SAN DIEGO - SEPTEMBER 19: Tackle Jeromey Clary #66 of the San Diego Chargers blocks against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Qualcomm Stadium on September 19, 2010 in San Diego, California.   The Chargers won 38-13.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Phillip Rivers ended up on the ground too many times this year, plain and simple.

    Take the Chargers game against the St. Louis Rams. Seven sacks is simply unacceptable.

    I'm targetting any specific position here because, really, the Chargers need to address a couple of different areas. They could use depth at right guard, center and left guard, and they could use a guy who could challenge Jeromey Clary for the right tackle position.

    The key to success for a football program is keeping your quarterback intact, and thus this should be a high priority for the Chargers this year.

    It's hard to narrow down a couple of players that merit looks, since we're talking about a lot of positions here, but here are a couple: Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State), Marcus Cannon (TCU), Chase Beeler (Stanford) and Lee Ziemba (Auburn).

    Just something to think about. 

Wide Receiver

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    SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Wide receiver Vincent Jackson #83 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Do
    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    You didn't think I was going to forget about this, did you?

    Vincent Jackson could be gone, and both Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are set to become free agents this year.

    The Chargers will likely bring back both Floyd and Naanee (depending on price), and have Patrick Crayton and Seyi Ajirotutu in the wings who can fill in most of the depth chart, but the Chargers could really use a fifth to round things out (and no, Kelley Washington is not the answer).

    Big threats to the outside should be the priority, so think guys like Nick Toon (Wisconsin), Leonard Hankerson (Miami FL) and Austin Pettis (Boise State).

    Don't discount slot guys, though. The Chargers could give serious looks to Greg Salas and Keoloha Pilares, the two great receivers from Hawaii.