Friday, April 6, 2012

Breaking down A.J. Smith's picks

The 2012 NFL draft is just 20 days away, and the excitement is rampant through every fan base's city. As fans, all of us seem to think our favorite team will pick a future Hall of Famer, All-Pro, or Pro Bowler with each selection, but the reality is a good draft haul will produce three starters, and most teams are lucky to get that.

With that in mind, I was wondering how many hits and misses San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has had since taking over for the late John Butler in 2003. Below is a list of every pick Smith has made for the Chargers, minus the 2011 draft selections. In bold, for each round I will offer my analysis on how successful or not Smith has been.

First-round picks

2003: Cornerback Sammy Davis, Jr.
2004: Quarterback Eli Manning
2005: Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman
2005: Defensive end Luis Castillo
2006: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie
2007: Wide receiver Buster Davis
2008: Cornerback Antoine Cason
2009: Outside linebacker Larry English
2010: Running back Ryan Mathews

Sammy Davis was a bust, as was Buster Davis. Perhaps A.J. should stop drafting players by the last name of Davis in the first round...The self-entitled Eli Manning has won two Super Bowls, but it's obvious he wouldn't have been able to do that in San Diego--which is why he didn't want to go to the Chargers in the first place. Trading Manning for Philip Rivers was an excellent move by A.J., as Rivers is the better quarterback--and the extra draft selections were just a bonus...Shawne Merriman would have been an excellent pick if injuries--which probably stemmed from steroid use--hadn't ruined his career...Luis Castillo was a good pick, being he was selected late in the first round and turned into a reliable starter for most of his time in San Diego...Antonio Cromartie would have been an excellent pick if he didn't turn out to be a complete jackass...Antoine Cason and Larry English look like they're not going to make it to their second contracts with the Chargers...Although Ryan Mathews has been unable to stay on the field, last season he showed he's capable of being a 1,200-yard back if he could remain healthy.

Grade: C. The Davises and Larry English selections really make A.J. look bad. Nnamdi Asomugha went one pick later than Sammy Davis, and A.J. really blew it when he took English ahead of offensive tackle Michael Oher and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, Jr. Antonio Cromartie getting traded and Shawne Merriman's injuries also hurt A.J.'s grade. If Cromartie's head were straightened out, and Merriman never suffered a serious injury, this grade would likely be an A+.

Second-round picks

2003: Safety Terrance Kiel
2003: Cornerback Drayton Florence
2004: Defensive end Igor Olshansky
2005: Wide receiver Vincent Jackson
2006: Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill
2007: Safety Eric Weddle

The late Terrence Kiel started 51 games over four seasons with the Chargers. Off-the-field problems led to his release in 2007, and he died in a tragic car accident on July 4, 2008... Drayton Florence played five seasons with the Chargers. During that time he made some boneheaded plays that cost San Diego dearly, although he did amass 10 interceptions before leaving for Jacksonville in 2008...Igor Olshansky started 70 games and had 151 tackles and 11.5 sacks during his five seasons with the Chargers. He was a major disappointment during his final season with the team, 2008, leading to him not being re-signed...It can be argued Vincent Jackson has been a top-10 receiver since the beginning of the 2007 postseason. He was an absolute steal, and A.J. should have signed him to a long-term deal at least two years ago... Marcus McNeill, when healthy, was a top-10 left tackle, but a neck injury has likely cut his career short. He was also an absolute steal...The same could also be said for Eric Weddle, who emerged as an All-Pro free safety last year, after finishing the season with seven interceptions.

Grade: A. It's a damn shame A.J. traded away his 2008, 2009, and 2010 second-round picks, because he has made some excellent selections during this round.

Third-round picks

2003: Offensive tackle Courtney Van Buren
2004: Center Nick Hardwick
2004: Kicker Nate Kaeding
2006: Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst
2007: Linebacker Anthony Waters
2008: Fullback Jacob Hester
2009: Offensive guard Louis Vasquez
2010: Inside linebacker Donald Butler

Courtney Van Buren started seven games at right tackle in 2003. He was off the roster after the 2004 season. Knee injuries cut his career short...Nick Hardwick has been a reliable starter at center since his rookie year. He was a steal...Nate Kaeding is the most accurate kicker in NFL history during the regular season. In the playoffs, however, he's been a total disaster, choking at the worst times...Charlie Whitehurst was a clipboard holder in San Diego for four years before he was traded to Seattle in a deal that brought back a 2011 third-round pick and allowed the Chargers to move up 20 spots in the second round of the 2010 draft. After two disappointing seasons with the Seahawks, he has returned to San Diego to be Philip Rivers' primary backup... Anthony Waters is arguably A.J.'s worst draft pick, as he was waived after his second season. He appeared in just seven games and made three tackles with the Chargers...Jacob Hester has been a good special teams player, but A.J. should have never traded a 2009 second-round pick to move up and get the fullback from LSU. It's unclear if Hester, currently an unrestricted free agent, will return for his fifth season in San Diego...Louis Vasquez has started at right guard since his rookie season. Although he hasn't been anything special, A.J. could have done a lot worse...Donald Butler was an absolute steal, as he appears to be an ascending player who could be a very good inside linebacker for quite a long time.

Grade: C+. Four of the nine picks produced starters in Hardwick, Kaeding, Vasquez, and Butler, and Whitehurst was a good investment. The Waters selection and trade-up for Hester really lower the grade.

Fourth-round picks

2003: Inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm
2004: Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips
2005: Running back Darren Sproles
2007: Tight end Scott Chandler
2009: Running back Gartrell Johnson
2009: Offensive guard Tyronne Green
2009: Defensive end Vaughn Martin
2010: Safety Darrell Stuckey

Matt Wilhelm was a good backup linebacker over six seasons with the Chargers...Shaun Phillips has been the team's top pass-rusher since Shawne Merriman flamed out in 2008...From the 2007 postseason through his final year with San Diego in 2010, Darren Sproles was one of the top receiving threats out of the backfield on screen passes...Scott Chandler had a career year in 2011--with the Buffalo Bills. He never played a regular-season down for the Chargers...Gartrell Johnson didn't make San Diego's 53-man roster for his rookie season...Tyronne Green has been a reliable backup at both guard spots and is the favorite to take over for the retired Kris Dielman...Vaughn Martin has shown a lot of progress since entering the NFL from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He's the favorite to start at the defensive end spot opposite 2011 first-round pick Corey Liuget...Darrell Stuckey has been a very good special teams performer. He will compete for the starting strong safety spot next to free safety Eric Weddle.

Grade: A. Only two of A.J.'s fourth-round draft picks, Scott Chandler and Gartrell Johnson, never played a role for the Chargers. The rest have either started or were/are key backups.

Fifth-round picks

2003: Punter Mike Scifres
2004: Running back Michael Turner
2004: Defensive end Dave Ball
2005: Offensive tackle Wesley Britt
2006: Linebacker Tim Dobbins
2007: Wide receiver Legedu Naanee
2008: Running back Marcus Thomas
2009: Cornerback Brandon Hughes
2010: Quarterback Jonathan Crompton
2010: Nose tackle Cam Thomas

Mike Scifres has been a top-five punter over the last five years...Michael Turner was a good backup behind LaDainian Tomlinson for four seasons in San Diego. In hindsight, A.J. probably should have kept Turner and traded Tomlinson following the 2007 season...Dave Ball has been a decent pass-rusher for the Tennessee Titans the last four seasons. He did nothing during his two years with the Chargers...Wesley Britt was released on the preseason's final cut day during his rookie year...Before being traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2010, Tim Dobbins was a versatile linebacker who made a few timely plays during his four years with the Chargers...Legedu Naanee was a decent #3 receiver for San Diego in 2009 and 2010. He left for the Carolina Panthers in 2011...Marcus Thomas, Brandon Hughes, and Jonathan Crompton weren't able to survive final preseason cuts during their rookie seasons...Cam Thomas appears to be ascending player and the favorite to start at nose tackle in 2012.

Grade: B-. A.J. got great value in selecting Mike Scifres, Michael Turner, Legedu Naanee, and Cam Thomas. Letting Turner get away was a huge mistake.

Sixth-round picks

2003: Defensive back Hank Milligan
2004: Tight end Ryan Krause
2005: Offensive guard Wes Sims
2006: Kicker Kurt Smith
2006: Offensive tackle Jeromey Clary
2008: Cornerback DeJuan Tribble
2009: Safety Kevin Ellison

Ryan Krause caught five passes for 81 yards in one game with the Chargers. It was the final regular-season contest of the 2004 season--a.k.a. garbage time...Wes Sims suited up one game for the Chargers in 2005...Kurt Smith was cut during his rookie preseason....Jeromey Clary has started at right tackle since the 2007 season. Why that is, I'll never know...Kevin Ellison started at strong safety during his rookie year. Due to off-the-field problems, he didn't return for a second season with the Chargers...DeJuan Tribble never played a regular-season down in the NFL.

Grade: F. Jeromey Clary has been A.J.'s best pick in the sixth round. That's just awful work. Even though it's the second-to-last round, it's tough to achieve a passing grade when your best selection turns into perhaps the worst starter at his position in the entire NFL.

Seventh-round picks

2003: Fullback Andrew Pinnock
2004: Offensive tackle Carlos Joseph
2004: Offensive tackle Shane Olivea
2004: Defensive tackle Ryon Bingham
2005: Center Scott Mruczkowski
2006: Center Jimmy Martin
2006: Defensive tackle Chase Page
2007: Insiide linebacker Brandon Siler
2008: Offensive tackle Corey Clark
2009: Wide receiver Demetrius Byrd
2010: Tight end Dedrick Epps

Andrew Pinnock lasted five years with the Chargers as a special teams player and backup to Lorenzo Neal...Carlos Joseph spent two seasons with the team...Shane Olivea started at right right tackle for two years; then his career fell apart in 2007...Ryon Bingham spent six seasons with the Chargers as a backup...Scott Mruczkowski has been a reliable backup who has made 16 starts for an injured Nick Hardwick...Jimmy Martin and Chase Page never played a regular-season game with the Chargers...Brandon Siler was a very good special teams player and situational run-stopper during his three seasons with the Chargers...Corey Clark lasted two seasons with the Chargers before retiring for unknown reasons prior to the 2010 season...Demetrius Byrd and Dedrick Epps never played a regular-season game with the Chargers.

Grade: C. Andrew Pinnock, Shane Olivea, Ryon Bingham, Scott Mruczkowski, and Brandon Siler were/are solid contributors. In this round A.J. hasn't found a long-term starter, so it's been a very average group.

Overall, I give A.J. a C+ for all of the draft picks he's made as general manager of the San Diego Chargers. His effort in the draft is probably better than half of the other general managers in the NFL. This leads me to believe he should have spent more money in free agency prior to this offseason. By relying too much on his draft picks, the misses have been magnified. Nevertheless, the last impact player he selected in the first round was Merriman. It's well overdue for A.J. to find a player who will make a real difference during his rookie season.

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