Chargers look to hit big with five of first 89 picks in draft

SAN DIEGO -- General manager A.J. Smith has some work to do in the NFL Draft after his San Diego Chargers shockingly flamed out and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.

The pressure is on for Smith to hit a home run, or at the very least, a booming triple. He will have five chances in the first 89 picks alone to find an impact player or two.

Overall, the Chargers have eight picks, starting with No. 18 in the first round.

The general consensus from outsiders is that the Chargers need to take a defensive end or outside linebacker. Smith won't say which positions are atop his list, only that this draft will be wide open. Because of the labor unrest, the Chargers don't know which free agents will be returning.

"If we can have a fantastic draft because we've got those five picks in the first three rounds, it's almost like we're teed up," Smith said. "Hopefully the guys are the right guys, can stay healthy and contribute rather quickly. That's what we're mostly talking about."

After winning four consecutive AFC West titles, the Chargers finished 9-7 last year and missed the playoffs. They sputtered from the start due to mind-boggling special teams blunders and turnovers. Not even Philip Rivers' fine season was enough to save the Chargers, who were swept by the Oakland Raiders and eliminated from playoff contention by an unfathomable loss at Cincinnati on the second-to-last Sunday.

After reaching the AFC Championship Game after the 2007 season, Norv Turner's first as head coach, the Bolts have regressed. They've won only one playoff game in three seasons.

"We need to get to the playoffs all the time," Smith said. "We need to win the division as many times as possible. If we don't win the division, we better have our numbers high enough so we can be a wild card, and then you have an opportunity. We have not been able to do much with our opportunities and it's very frustrating. Last year was completely frustrating. Not only to not go to the tournament, we're not even first in our division.

"We have a lot of work to do. Hopefully we'll have an impactful year with a lot of healthy players, and new players. Going back to the situation with five picks, we'll tee it up and get back at this thing and hopefully bounce back and get into the playoffs."

Smith's past three drafts have provided only four starters: cornerback Antoine Cason, outside linebacker Larry English, guard Louis Vasquez and running back Ryan Mathews.

Most observers feel the Chargers need a pass rusher because English hasn't lived up to his billing as the team's first-round pick in 2009.

"We've had some guys struggle with some injuries," Smith said. "Hopefully they'll get healthy and contribute. If you're not healthy, it's going to make it hard to help yourself with the team. Larry has had some injuries and some surgeries and some struggles."

Possible picks include Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, or Wisconsin's J.J. Watt or Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, if they're still available.

"I'd like to hit a home run with every draft," said Smith, who did come up huge in 2004 and '05. "In reality, you don't hit a home run in every draft. But I'm excited about the five picks."

The Chargers had the NFL's No. 1 defense last year, holding teams to 271.6 yards per game, but that's a largely empty stat, especially with all the short fields they gave opponents. The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed five more yards per game, but allowed 90 fewer points than the Chargers and made it to the Super Bowl.

Like Smith, Turner thinks the Chargers can get better through this draft thanks to the five picks in the first three rounds.

"I think if you're talking about if you only had the one or a one and a two, then we've got to get this position or this need," Turner said. "But having the extra picks gives you flexibility. It's pretty wide open. You can take a guy you like and then fill a need in the second round."

Turner said an impact player doesn't necessarily have to be on defense.

"There are lot of good football players, then there are the guys that jump out and make game-changing type plays," Turner said. "Most people associate that with defense. You want to have as many players like that on your team as you can. If you can add those type of guys, you'll get a lot better. That's really the approach we're taking. You could take a guy that rushes the passer and puts pressure on the quarterback, or maybe a linebacker who's a great cover guy, or maybe a receiver, a deep guy."

With no collective bargaining agreement, the uncertainty extends all the way to wide receiver Vincent Jackson. The Chargers placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, who missed the first 10 games last season in a nasty contract dispute. But no one knows if a new CBA will contain franchise tags.

In addition to the first-round pick, the Chargers have two picks in the second (Nos. 50 and 61) and third (Nos. 82 and 89) rounds. They acquired the additional second-round pick from the New York Jets for Antonio Cromartie and the additional third-round choice from the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.

The Chargers have two sixth-round picks and one in the seventh, including two compensatory selections that cannot be traded. The Chargers do not have picks in the fourth or fifth rounds as a result of draft day trades in 2010. They traded their 2011 seventh-round pick to Dallas for wide receiver Patrick Crayton in September.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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