The Draft can make or break an NFL team. Unlike the NBA or MLB, where signing big-name free agents can make a contender, football teams have to be built from within. That means a couple of good drafts can set up a title run, while a couple of bad ones can make season ticket sales plummet.
On Thursday, the 2012 NFL Draft begins with 31 teams trying to do what the 32nd team did; build a Super Bowl winner. Only the first round will be completed, with the rest of the selections being made on Friday and Saturday.
Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith has had very good drafts (like 2004, which brought in Philip Rivers, Nate Kaeding, Nick Hardwick and Shaun Phillips) and very bad drafts (2007 yielded Eric Weddle and ... um ... Eric Weddle). After missing the playoffs for two straight seasons, A.J. needs to hit it big and re-stock the cupboards.
"To build a team, you've got to move it around with balance," says Smith, "and be optimistic that you're building your team over a period of time, so you can get balance, be a playoff-caliber team and keep it going for a while."
Smith admits, the Chargers' efforts have worked out on offense and special teams. Defense, however, is a different story.
"We've failed to do that. We've done it in spurts, we've had coaching changes. We need to stop that and get consistent. Unless we have a dictating, dominating defense, that's the term I use, we're not winning any championship. Defense is the thing we have to fix."
So, how far away are the Chargers from assembling that kind of unit? Can it be done with just a few changes?
"It can be done by some of the players we have," said Smith. "We need to get some backups in here, and we need some young ones to emerge this year that we don't know, like a Donald Butler."
The Chargers were last in the NFL in 3rd down defense. It's impossible to count the number of times an opposing team converted a 3rd down to keep a drive alive, especially in passing situations. Smith singled that out as an area to address, and has a plan to do it.
"A pass rush will make the back end of your secondary so much better, it's amazing. All the deficiencies on the back end, if you have no pass rush, they're going to look worse."
All that is prelude to this: What are the Chargers going to do on Draft day? When we talked six days out, Smith hinted the 2012 class is slanted toward defensive talent, but doesn't have his big board set up quite yet.
"You don't have to make those decisions until about three days before the Draft," said Smith. "That's when we shut down all the evaluations and start doing the things you and I are talking about. What are we going to do? What direction? What players?Five to seven at each particular spot, who are they and why are they there?"
That five to seven number is what the Chargers call their "cluster." Each time their turn to pick rolls around, the Bolts will have a group of players, not ranked in any particular order, they'd be happy to have. So, by Thursday morning, they'll know who they want to take with the 18th pick. At that point, if there are multiple players left in the cluster, it's a matter of choosing the right one at the right time.
"We have never, since I've been here, been wiped out in out plans for the cluster, where you've got seven guys and we'll take any one of those guys. You might have a favorite in there, but the bottom line is, this is the targeted group that we'll take. To have it all wiped out, like the last two went two spots before you, we've never had that. If this is the first year that it should happen, you're always for a reserve couple of guys to move in to that pile."
The piles for the first two rounds will be loaded with defensive talent. Smith says it usually takes three years to truly know if a Draft class is a success. However, when C.E.O Dean Spanos decided to retain Smith and head coach Norv Turner, he said he expected the team to be better in 2012. One would assume that means they need better players, stat. A Draft pick that makes an immediate impact is rare. I asked Smith if he's feeling extra pressure to find one.
"No, I don't. I'm just really focused on my job. You're excited, and you hope that you make the right decisions."