Like most other NFL organizations, the San Diego Chargers are a team that builds and maintains its roster through the draft. General manager Tom Telesco doesn’t necessarily put any more value on securing impact players through the draft, versus trade or free agency.
But annually selecting rookies that can make an impact on a team’s roster is important, particularly when you consider the player will be under the team’s control for at least four years, likely at an inexpensive salary.
So getting detailed medical evaluations and vetting players through the intense interviewing process are the most important things for teams this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Of the 53 players that finished the season on San Diego’s roster, 23 were secured through the draft, compared to 27 free agents, two through trades, and one claimed off waivers.
The Chargers have seven original picks in this year’s draft, one in each round beginning with the No. 25 overall pick. So they will be paying close attention to the more than 330 players invited to this year’s combine.
Along with evaluating draft prospects, Telesco will have an opportunity to meet with middle linebacker Donald Butler's representation as the Chargers try to get him signed to a multi-year deal before he hits free agency next month.
Here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chargers.
1. Physical cornerbacks who can turn and run: A major area of need for San Diego is improving the overall talent and depth at cornerback. Last year’s top free agent signee Derek Cox likely will not be back after being supplanted in the starting lineup by Richard Marshall. San Diego’s 2013 fifth-round selection Steve Williams could work into the conversation at corner in 2014. The Cal product sat out his rookie year after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during preseason play. But the Chargers need to add a couple physical corners who can cover -- through the draft, free agency or trade. Some names to keep an eye on include Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy. Those players stand out to me because of their length, athleticism and playmaking ability.
2. Edge rushers needed: The Chargers have several veterans at this position, but you can never have enough athletes who can rush the passer. And San Diego struggled at creating consistent pressure, particularly on third down. Three guys potentially available on Day 1 of the draft who could make an impact include Missouri’s Kony Ealy, BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, and Auburn’s Dee Ford.
3. A run-stuffing defensive tackle: San Diego gave up an average of 4.59 yards per carry on defense in 2013, No. 29 in the NFL. Cam Thomas started the most games at defensive tackle, but will be a free agent in March. Sean Lissemore finished as the team’s starter at the end of the season, but needs to add some bulk to effectively fill this position. San Diego could certainly use a two-gap defensive tackle to control the middle of the defense, similar to Dontari Poe in Kansas City. Potential candidates in the draft include Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III, Minnesota’s Ra'Shede Hageman, and Penn State’s Daquan Jones.
4. Improved interior offensive line depth: With center Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement and veteran guard Jeromey Clary a potential salary-cap causality, the Chargers need to add some depth to the interior of the offensive line. Mississippi State’s Gabe Jackson and Stanford’s David Yankey are the top rated guards in this year’s draft. And USC’s Marcus Martin could be the long-term answer for a team at center.
5. Add a couple explosive playmakers: San Diego could use some help in the return game. Keenan Allen should not be the team’s main punt returner. He’s too valuable on offense. And the Chargers could use someone with some juice in the kick return game. Washington’s Bishop Sankey, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks, and Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas makes some sense because of their ability to create explosive plays on offense and in the return game. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers needs a few more weapons on offense to make his job easier, and all three of these players would fit the bill.