Every year teams spend countless hours studying and evaluating the next crop of players to become eligible for the National Football League. Teams are built via the NFL Draft, and those teams who can consistently draft well stand the best chance of remaining competitive in a league renown for it’s parity. As salaries rise and contract lengths shorten, it is more important than ever to have a solid draft strategy consisting of both a wide and deep knowledge of each and every player who declares for the pros. These prospects are what teams stake their claim on, hoping to unearth gold along with the occasional diamond in the rough.
Internally, NFL clubs critically evaluate their performance from the previous season and identify areas of need, that is to say, positions or problems which they need to address from a roster stand point in order to be successful both in the upcoming season and for the next few seasons thereafter. Sometimes, teams elect to be active in free agency to fill holes by signing available veteran players. But by and large, the majority of a team’s success during the season will be a direct result of how well, or poorly, they’ve drafted.
Each draft class is different and should be judged on the merits of the prospects it contains. Top players in this year’s draft may be ranked lower or higher when compared to players in previous draft classes. In addition, each team’s specific needs evolve over time, thus they will prioritize players differently than their competitors. Additionally, within each team exists an internal core of scouts, coaches, and management who all have their own opinions and rankings of the players in the upcoming NFL Draft. Through a process, they will assemble their rankings by assigning each player a grade, regardless of position. Then, once they’ve objectively analyzed each prospect, they will assemble a wishlist of players who A.) are highly rated, B.) fill a position of need, and C.) is expected to be available at each of the team’s selections. In some cases, a team may covet a player so much that they will trade up to get him. But for the most part, each team enters the NFL Draft well-prepared and with a plan of action, and rarely get overly enamored or attached to a player. As many General Managers will tell you, each draft has lots of good players.
When we focus in on the Chargers’ specific needs as a team, a few glaring issues stand out:
The Chargers finished last in the league on 3rd down defense
San Diego was woefully ineffective stopping opposing offenses on 3rd down. They failed all too often to prevent their opponent from converting first downs, leading to sustained drives which many times resulted in points.
Football is pretty basic; you have to score more points than the opponent to win. This means you have to score points as often as possible, while preventing the opposing team from scoring more than you. If the Chargers are to become a championship-caliber team, they need to significantly improve their ability to get off the field on third down. This means they need bolster their back seven to play better in coverage and to get more sacks on the quarterback. The NFL is a passing league, so if you aren’t able to defend the pass, you are going to quickly get scored on.
Philip Rivers makes or breaks this team
The Bolts are blessed to have an elite franchise signal caller with all of the physical and intangible skills you look for in a Quarterback. Rivers has the ability to take over a game, and his on-field success directly affects the outcome of a game. As Rivers goes, the team goes.
Passing efficiency is one of the key predictive metrics as to whether or not a team is going to be a championship-level offense. This means making big plays down the field, limiting turnovers, and providing outstanding pass protection. With adequate time and with good receiving weapons, Philip Rivers is one of the most dangerous players in the National Football League.
The Chargers felt the impact of an injured Antonio Gates last year. And now that Vincent Jackson is playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gates figures to attract even more defensive attention. The Chargers signed Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, both of whom are solid players with plenty of speed but neither Meachem nor Royal have ever made the Pro Bowl, an achievement Jackson has marked twice. Malcom Floyd is a talented big receiver with outstanding hands, but he has shown proneness to injury, missing four to five games a season each the past two years.
On the pass protection side of things, Marcus McNeil and Kris Dielman represent a former All-Pro duo at Left Tackle and Left Guard who are no longer with the Chargers largely due to injury concerns. Jared Gaither has emerged as the long-term replacement for McNeil, but Dielman leaves a big hole as a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the best players to ever play for the San Diego Chargers.
The Chargers need to ensure Rivers is adequately protected, and they need to prove they can run the ball inside effectively, especially when it counts. The Left Guard position, the critical link between the Center and Left Tackle, is one to watch in 2012.
What all of this amounts to is what, in my opinion, are the Chargers biggest needs entering the 2012 NFL Draft:
1. Rush Outside Linebacker
The Chargers need desperately to generate more sacks and negative plays. Getting more pressure on the Quarterback at critical situations, improving 3rd down defense and creating more turnovers and plays behind the line of scrimmage is the team’s primary concern. The Chargers need to add difference-makers to their back seven.
The team could use their first round draft pick on an explosive pass rusher who can play in sub packages and on special teams, and serve in a rotation amongst Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, and hopefully an improved Larry English. If these four can play up to their abilities, the Chargers could field a fearsome group of rush linebackers.
Potential first round targets: Melvin Ingram, South Carolina / Nick Perry, USC / Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
2. Defensive Back
Internally, the Chargers must decide which group of their current defensive backs has more potential upside; their safeties or their cornerbacks. Quentin Jammer is getting older and his transition from Cornerback to Safety may happen within the next few years. Antoine Cason’s inconsistency at corner has at times lost the coaches confidence in him.
Eric Weddle is a Pro Bowler but there is a hole opposite him at Strong Safety. In 2010, the Chargers took Safety Darrell Stuckey in the fourth round and in 2011, the Bolts selected Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright in the second and third rounds, respectively.
There simply isn’t enough game tape to effectively evaluate these three as pros, so the Chargers will have to rely on their internal intelligence consisting of weight room and practice field evaluations. But if those player evaluations fall far behind a highly-rated prospect, I don’t doubt for a second AJ Smith wouldn’t hesitate to go back to the well and draft a defensive back in the first round, either Safety or Cornerback, in order to bolster their back seven – especially when weighing Peyton Manning’s arrival into the division.
Potential first round targets: Mark Barron, Alabama / Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
3. Wide Receiver
Philip Rivers is an elite Quarterback, but that doesn’t mean he can simply make due with mediocre weapons on offense. The Chargers are a downfield, passing offense that requires receivers who can run deep routes and at times compete for jump balls. They should also be effective in the redzone, spreading a defense so that Rivers can find the best spot to pick. The Chargers have not been able to draft and develop receiving talent aside from Vincent Jackson, with Buster Davis proving to be a colossal bust.
The Bolts have traditionally leaned on veteran free agent wide receivers, but Rivers is at his best when he has reliable, consistent, explosive talent. And while the Chargers have made a number of key free agent signings at wide receiver, they still need to plan for a possible future without Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates. Meachem, Royal, and the emerging Vincent Brown are good players, but that shouldn’t stop the Chargers from looking to continue to add playmakers on offense, something the Chargers offense desperately needs more of.
Potential first round targets: Michael Floyd, Notre Dame / Kendall Wright, Baylor
4. Left Guard
As mentioned, the Bolts lean on Rivers but he can’t do it all himself. He needs good pass protection and at times needs to lean on a power run game. The Chargers are obviously prioritizing the offensive line this offseason, and for good reason. They know they need to keep Philip Rivers upright and give him time, and they need to see more production from Ryan Mathews. The team gave up a lot to trade up and select Mathews, but the numbers are just not there yet. If they truly believe in his talent, and all indications are that they do, then they will continue to make moves such as signing Le'Ron McClain in order to ensure they can run the ball whenever and wherever they want to.
Potential first round targets: David DeCastro, Stanford / Cordy Glenn, Georgia
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Labels: NFL Draft 2012
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