A.J. Smith responds in pressure year

San Diego, once a perennial playoff team, has not played in the postseason for two years in a row. AP Photo/Kevin Terrell

It was the first day of the NFL combine in Indianapolis and if A.J. Smith had been nervous, it would have been understandable.

He was entering the most critical offseason of his career. Already fired in the court of public opinion, Smith and Norv Turner, the coach he will forever be connected to, were given a reprieve by the San Diego Chargers ownership even though the team failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season.

San Diego is trying to curry as much public favor as possible in an effort to get a new stadium. If the team fails to reach the postseason again this season, the duo probably will be fired. The only way either man could retain his job if the Chargers don’t make the postseason would be if the team were decimated by injuries. And even that might not be enough.

Smith has to have an excellent year and the task began in earnest at the combine, where the team’s free-agency and draft plans began to unfold.

Was Smith worried in Indianapolis?

If he was, he is a fantastic actor. He looks like he’s on vacation every day. Tanned and well dressed, Smith casually sipped iced tea and spoke at length about his plan for the offseason. He was aware of his challenges and the consequences of failure but vowed not to play the offseason scared.

“I’m not going to get desperate,” Smith said then. “I’m going to do it my way.”

Fast forward more than two months later; Smith must be applauded for what he has done. Smith did everything he could to put the Chargers in a positive position headed into the season.

He decided not to tie up a large chunk of his free-agent budget in Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson. Instead he focused on keeping other key in-house free agents such as offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Jared Gaither, signed several receivers and added solid depth throughout the roster.

Smith followed up his aggressive free agency efforts by spearheading one of the best drafts. The Chargers found stunning early-round value on defense, their greatest need. At the end of Round 3, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden applauded the team's choices and said he believed San Diego would be a playoff team again.

The Chargers’ biggest offseason need was to infuse a lackluster defense with some impact performers. They had a meek pass rush in 2011 and were the NFL’s worst defense on third down.

After securing Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson in free agency, Smith watched his draft board fall perfectly. It started when dynamic South Carolina pass-rusher Melvin Ingram fell to San Diego at the No. 18 pick. He is a perfect 3-4 outside linebacker and should make an instant impact. He was expected to be a top-10 pick, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper called the choice one of the very best of the first round.

In the second and third rounds, the Chargers added defensive tackle Kendall Reyes at No. 49 and then traded up to take LSU safety Brandon Taylor at No. 73, in the third round. San Diego was considering Taylor with its second-round pick. The Chargers went on to draft value the rest of the weekend, even getting potential contributors like center David Molk and running back Edwin Baker in the final round.

Smith told U-T San Diego after the draft that he was pleased with his process, but he knows it doesn’t guarantee anything.

“All drafts are important to me,” Smith told the paper. “All I can do is concentrate on my job each and every year and do the best I can do as long as I can. Nothing’s changed here for me. There’s no outside pressure. I’m grateful to be here and have no idea how long I’ll be here.

“Everyone feels great on draft day. Some will make an impact in their first year, some will take awhile to get better, and some will never get the opportunity because of injuries, but it won’t be their fault or ours. You don’t know anything. We’ve drafted excellent college football players. They’re unproven NFL players -- all of them.”

San Diego owner Dean Spanos is pleased with the offseason Smith has put together.

“I think we were pretty patient in the draft and we think it paid off,” Spanos said in a phone interview this week. “We are happy with how the draft went. … We had a plan this offseason and we feel like we came pretty close to getting everything done we wanted to. … But we will see. We all know we need to get back to the playoffs and we are working to get there.”

Still, getting back into the postseason will not be easy for San Diego. The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos also made significant improvements in the offseason.

“I can’t say I am sold on the Chargers,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “Over the past few years, I think their collective talent level has dropped. They did do some good things in free agency and the draft treated them well, not to mention that I am still a huge believer in Philip Rivers. … It isn’t to say that they can’t compete or get into the postseason, but right now, they are the third best team in the AFC West to me. “

If San Diego can’t break through and Smith and Turner pay for it, it will not be because of a lack of effort at the top. Smith responded to the challenge in free agency and the draft. Now, it’s time to see if it was enough.