GM A.J. Smith Eyeing Courtney Upshaw At Senior Bowl

It’s never too early to begin discussion on the NFL Draft and especially not with the calendar on the precipice of changing to February. Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith was in Mobile, Alabama for the annual Senior Bowl to take a look at some top players from the collegiate level.

As always, the Bolts GM didn’t shy away from commenting on his intentions and what he was looking at during his time in Mobile. When asked about where his focus was for this year’s draft, according to U-T San Diego, Smith said: “I’m focused on pass rush every year. Are we looking for that now? Yeah.”

Obviously Smith loves nothing more than to play mind games with his general manager brethren when it comes to the draft and this year may be no exception. Still one has to wonder just how insincere he could actually be considering the team’s real struggles to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks this past season. Defense is the consensus in these early stages as the Bolts’ big need area, but as fluid as the draft can be, Smith may change his mind a few times between now and April.

That being said, the front office has been talking about adding more ‘impact players’ on defense for quite a while which generally means players who can get to the quarterback. Shaun Phillips has been a solid starter for the Chargers since being drafted in the fourth round in 2004, but hasn’t been as effective without a star rusher on his opposite side. The draft choice of Larry English just hasn’t worked out and the team desperately needs to get back to the days when they had two strong rushers coming off of the edge in the 3-4 look.

The player that GM Smith was reportedly eyeing at the Senior Bowl was Alabama Crimson Tide stand-up outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw. There are undeniable similarities between Upshaw and one time Bolts’ star Shawne Merriman as far as physique and raw power are concerned and the fact that many of Phillips’ best years came with Merriman lining up at his opposite could weigh heavily into the desire to land Upshaw.

Coaches and scouts alike marvel at Upshaw’s technique and many have used words like ‘thick’ to describe his appearance. At 6’2” 273lbs., Upshaw has the prototypical build of a 3-4 rush end and his chiseled look is more than merely aesthetic. NFL coaches have marveled at his raw power during the practices in Mobile and even though many scouts doubt his status as an elite athlete, his ability to be effective on the field is indisputable.

One man who knows Upshaw’s abilities first-hand believes that he will thrive at the next level in a 3-4 system. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban lauded the defensive MVP of the BCS national championship game against LSU and his NFL experience is trusted by many scouts around the league. Of Upshaw, Saban said: “He’s a guy that’s really hard to block. He’s a good pass rusher. He’s got great size and strength to play outside linebacker and be a designated pass rusher on third down. People are always looking for those kind of guys, and I think he’s going to fit well with a team, especially a 3-4 team.”

There is no doubt that the Bolts will keep their options open this early in the pre-draft process, but Upshaw would make a lot of sense with the 18th overall selection should he still be available at that point in the draft. Other buzzworthy possibilities include South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram as well as Boise State’s Shea McCellin, but both of these guys are considered to be a tier below Upshaw as far as potential is concerned.

As the scouting process heats up, look for GM Smith to really zero in on which prospects he desires the most and not be all that secretive about his plans to land one of those sought-after commodities. When asked whether he believes this draft could produce a top-level pass rusher, Smith responded saying: “I think there is. I think there are a couple interesting people.”

Those comments alone should be enough to suggest that the Bolts will land at least one top-tier sack artist in this year’s selection.

Now it’s your turn. How do you feel about GM Smith’s less than secretive practices when it comes to scouting players prior to the draft? Do you believe that drafting a rush end should be the number one priority in April or should another position take higher standing? Is Courtney Upshaw the ideal fit in the Bolts’ 3-4 system or do you see another player as a better match? Please fill up the comments section below with your thoughts!

January 27, 2012

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