Improved Chargers holding two first-rounders

Forgive the Chargers' front office for taking Eli Manning's objections to being a Charger personal. It was personal. There is no way to sugarcoat it.

A year ago, Manning's father, Archie, on the suggestion of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, visited the Chargers on a scouting mission. He reported back to his son that San Diego wasn't the place to be as the No. 1 pick in the draft. Archie saw visions of those Saints teams he played for: understaffed teams that left him vulnerable to more physical hits than completions in games.

"Initially, we were going to have three or four players we were considering with the first pick, and then we found out one of them [Eli] didn't want to be here," Chargers general manager A.J Smith said. "They thought I was gone as a general manager and that I probably wasn't a very good football man because I had never done it in my life. They thought Marty Schottenheimer was gone, that the players stink, that there was no offensive line. So, they thought they weren't sending his kid there."

What a difference a year makes. Smith has since been honored as NFL executive of the year and earned a four-year contract extension. Schottenheimer was the NFL coach of the year and earned an extension. The Chargers won the AFC West, and now, they have two quarterbacks -- Drew Brees and Philip Rivers -- along with two first-round draft choices, one acquired from the Manning trade on draft day. The franchise lifted a city-aided guaranteed ticket insurance and ended up selling out its stadium from merit.

The sad Chargers are now the glad Chargers, going from worst to first. The laughingstock got the last laugh, and San Diego can still snicker because the future looks bright. The Manning family's diagnosis of confusion turned out to be a mistake. The Chargers enter this year's draft looking like a sound football operation with a great plan.

"I think we've arrived, meaning the respect that we have from our peers in the NFL and the support from the fans in our community with the sellouts down the stretch," Smith said. "I think what is being said is that this place is a pretty good organization. Right now, we are heading in the right direction. The credibility is to maintain it now that the bar has been raised high."

The Chargers defeated their critics by making sound football decisions that defied conventional NFL wisdom. In 2004, they didn't go crazy in free agency. Instead of jumping into the first wave of high-priced free agents, the Chargers invested $1.2 million-$2.6 million a year for linebackers Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley and guard Mike Goff. In the draft, Smith netted Rivers -- who didn't play -- and kicker Nate Kaeding from the Manning trade.

Yet, they won 12 games. Something had to click.

"We brought in some unknown players we sprinkled in from all over the place," Smith said. "No one gave a hoot 'bout our signings of Steve Foley and Mike Goff. The joke was A.J. just got two ex-Bengals in here even though Foley spent one year in Houston. We believed in the players."

The bottom line in the additions of Foley, Goff and Godfrey was that they were mean, nasty football players with experience. Foley had a Pro Bowl-caliber season rushing from the outside linebacker position in the new 3-4 scheme, and Godfrey solidified the interior run defense with his style. Goff helped in the transition of the entire offensive line.

After the draft, the Chargers added veteran left tackle Roman Oben to help the line further. They traded for wide receiver Keenan McCardell to add an offensive threat. Meanwhile, Brees finally became the franchise quarterback, and despite the presence of Rivers, who has a six-year, $40 million contract, Brees is the quarterback the team plans to win with this season.

"I'll tell you a great story that represents Drew Brees," Schottenheimer said. "About a week before we were going to training camp, Drew comes to me and said, 'Coach, is it OK if we have a players-only meeting about a week before you open camp with your meeting?' He said, 'I and a couple of other guys want to talk with the squad.' I said, 'Sure, what have you got in mind?' He said, 'Well, I want to talk about our goals and objectives, where we are and how we see we'll get there.' I said, 'Terrific.'

"Well, he goes into this meeting, and I wasn't in there. It was 45 minutes or an hour and they got after it. 'What are we going to do? We're tired of the losing … ' There were any number of those players who were sitting there thinking, 'Who the hell is he to be standing up there talking? He ain't going to be here!' But it's representative of what's going on in that guy. He has got supreme confidence in his ability. And none of it's phony."

Now, the Chargers have confidence. Sound football is what got the Chargers to 12 wins, and that thinking is going to carry over this year. The thought would be if the Mannings were looking over the Chargers today, they might endorse the plan. Twelve wins was an unexpected start, but it's a good base for the franchise to build upon.

A year ago, the Chargers needed everything. Now, the plan is to draft solid football players to fill out an improving roster. They have the 12th and 28th selections in the first round. They need a pass-rusher at linebacker or defensive end. Shawne Merriman of Maryland, Marcus Spears of LSU or Erasmus James of Wisconsin might be possible solutions. The Chargers need a receiver – although the 12th pick might be too low to net them Braylon Edwards of Michigan, Mike Williams of Southern Cal or maybe even Troy Williamson of South Carolina.

They need a playmaking free safety.

"We're looking for good football players to help us win, just good football players," Smith said.

This will be Smith's third draft since inheriting the job from his best friend and former general manager, the late John Butler. He drafted four defensive backs in 2003. Last year, he grabbed two offensive line starters -- center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Shane Olivea -- and three prospects for the defensive line -- Igor Olshansky, Shaun Phillips and Dave Ball.

"When I do add the veteran players who are the short-window guys that will help you three years or so, you do it to jump-start the process to win," Smith said. "What you do is add people behind them so the transition will be smooth in the two- or three-year period. That's what I'm trying to do. We have enough corner guys. We have Foley on one side, but we do need a pass-rusher on the other side. The more heat we can bring, the better it is for the secondary, and everybody knows that. We stop the run pretty well, but we need to create more pressure."

The team the Mannings felt didn't have a plan actually did. The Chargers are solid at both kicking positions. Kaeding converted 80 percent of his field goal opportunities, making 20 of 25 kicks. Punter Mike Scifres looks like a future Pro Bowler, one of the best younger punters Smith has ever seen.

After the season, the team will make a decision on Brees or Rivers for the future. Then, the decision will be sound. Sound decisions got the Chargers to the top of the AFC West.

"You can't make mistakes with draft picks," Smith said. "The kicker was taken, and that was designed for the future. The punter was taken a year earlier, but he's one of the top punters I've seen in my career. We think we've got our punter for 10 years. We've got our defensive scheme set with Wade Phillips, and we will keep building on offense and defense."

Now, the Chargers have what Manning hoped for -- a playoff-caliber team with a plan. Who would have guessed?

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.