Chargers president Dean Spanos didn’t pull the plug on head coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith despite a monumentally disappointing season. Having missed the playoffs in back-to-back years, San Diego enters the draft coming off an aggressive free-agency period.
Outside linebacker: The Chargers landed edge-setting run defender Jarret Johnson for an affordable rate, and he’ll be an upgrade across from Shaun Phillips. San Diego still lacks the natural edge-rushing ‘backer Smith mistakenly believed he found in Larry English three years ago. Antwan Barnes is a situational player. The Bolts could probably get by with a rotation at the position, but Johnson, Phillips, and Travis LaBoy are all on the wrong side of 30 and only Phillips has been a consistent double-digit sack threat.
Safety: The strong safety position has been a revolving door in San Diego since Rodney Harrison left in 2003. Terrence Kiel, Clinton Hart, Bob Sanders, Kevin Ellison, and Darrell Stuckey have flopped. Like Harrison did so many years ago, Steve Gregory has left for New England. The Chargers’ G.M. is known to be a “huge fan” of Notre Dame strong safety Harrison Smith, who could be available in the draft’s second round.
Defensive line: Incumbent nose tackle Antonio Garay was pushed around far too often last season and is going on age 33. Cam Thomas has teased in limited snaps as a 2010 fifth-round pick, but seems unlikely to take over the nose position full time. Defensive end Corey Liuget is San Diego’s lone legitimate pass-rushing threat on the line, and he tallied just one sack in 15 appearances last year.
Running back: Ryan Mathews has only shown flashes of the player Smith anticipated he’d be when San Diego traded up to the 12th overall pick in 2010. Le’Ron McClain can pound it in short yardage and lead block in a pinch, but isn’t a viable candidate for the No. 2 back role. Mike Tolbert was a big loss because he was so effective in the receiving game. Smith probably won’t draft a running back until the middle rounds, but he needs another one.