The current philosophy in the NFL, as it relates to the draft, seems to be that in the first two rounds you can get NFL-ready players. I think in this year's draft, with more kids than ever playing football and coaching getting better at the high school and college levels, that was extended to the first three rounds. After that, you're looking for guys with flaws that you think you can fix. These guys may one day become good, or even great, but there's a chance they never amount to anything as well. These are called "Project Picks".
Looking through the first 2 rounds of pick for the Chargers in the past few seasons, you'll see names like Antoine Cason, Eric Weddle, Antonio Cromartie, Marcus McNeill, Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo, Philip Rivers and Igor Olshansky. That's not all of them, but that's most of them. Each of these players had an impact in their rookie seasons, either as a starter or a backup, and (if they didn't already start as rookie) eventually forced the team's hand in getting rid of the incumbent to get them more time on the field. Cason's not there yet, but that's mostly due to the play of Cromartie and Quentin Jammer (another recent first rounder) rather than his own drawbacks.
So, in this year's draft, the Chargers went in with more holes than usual. There were holes along both lines, and the team needed to look for help at RB, LB and Safety. This was not the draft to be spending first-rounders or even third-rounders on "projects" that wouldn't see the field in year one. This was the time to find players that would make an immediate impact. How did the Chargers do?
Larry English, OLB, N. Illinois (Round 1, Pick 16 - 16th Overall)
In my initial review of the picks, I said that Larry English reminded me of Shawne Merriman and hoped he would be a ferocious pass-rusher when he got on the field. One thing that I didn't notice at the time: wingspan.
I've always known that a long wingspan helps pass-rushers just as much as it helps pass-blockers. The war at the line of scrimmage is all hands and arms. Elvis Dumervil is 5'11" (3 inches shorter than English), but reportedly (they don't keep stats on such things) has the wingspan of a 6'7" man. Merriman (2 inches taller than English) is built like a MAC truck, and his arms are long as hell (I saw reports of 8' wingspan).
You can tell wingspan is important when you start seeing it come up in scouting reports. Looking back at the pre-draft scouting reports on English, I should've noticed that just about all of them have (tucked away in the middle of a sentence usually) either "average wingspan" or "below average wingspan" in their description of him. I think this has been his biggest weakness, and unfortunately is not something that he can change.
Now, add in the fact that Larry is coming from a small school (NIU) where he faced lesser competition, and add in the position change from full-time 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB. English was anything but a sure-thing in the NFL, which makes him a project in my book.
Looking back on the post-draft analysis that's out there, you see a lot of people commending the Chargers for finding depth behind Merriman and then saying something like "They were able to get a good pass-rusher in a draft where they're at a premium." To me it all adds up to this: Larry English should've been a 2nd rounder, which is really a mixed bag between NFL-ready players with average potential (Olshansky) and projects with incredible potential (Vincent Jackson). He falls somewhere in between those two groupings. However, to make sure they weren't left with nothing, the Chargers had to use a higher pick to secure a pass-rusher.
Career Outlook: My initial 2009 outlook on English didn't state anything more than he would be on the field plenty, which he has been. As much as I've been critical of him, and I don't expect Larry to ever be a dominating pass-rusher, I do think that his motor is good enough to make him a future starter at OLB and it will keep some of those broken-plays that tend to happen in the playoffs from happening to the Chargers. So that's good.
B+ D (The Patriots showed in their draft that there were plenty of people willing to trade up in the first round. The Chargers would've been better off moving down, where they still could've gotten English or Clay Matthews, and trying to secure another 3rd round pick.)
Louis Vasquez, OG, Texas Tech (Round 3, Pick 14 - 78th Overall)
This was a project pick that has turned into a great one. Not only has Vasquez been a very capable starter, he has improved throughout the season (credit the O-line coach as well as the other O-linemen). Considering the Chargers gave first crack at the RG spot to Kynan Forney, I doubt they expected Vasquez to see this much time on the field this early. Also, since Louis told BFTB that he had never even spoken to San Diego it's doubtful that they knew he could run-block at all. This was a pick for the future that, lucky for the Chargers, has worked wonderfully in the present.
Career Outlook: Vasquez is Marcus McNeill Part II. Let's just hope that he can keep up this level of play, or get better, and that he stays a Charger for his entire career.
B A (If the draft was re-done today, I think Vasquez would go in the second round.)
Vaughn Martin, DT, Western Ontario (Round 4, Pick 13 - 113th Overall)
I love this pick more and more as time goes on. After the draft I criticized it for being a reach, with many pre-draft analyses predicting Martin to go in the 7th round or being an UDFA. However, we're into the 4th round so it's "project time" and you really can't find a better project pick than Vaughn. He has everything: size, speed, strength, work ethic, character. Like Vincent Jackson, all Martin really needs is some refining, coaching and experience.
AJ Smith (and the late John Butler) is the King of finding players that nobody knew about and turning them into stars. He doesn't just get guys in that have potential, but somehow gets guys in that almost always eventually live up to that potential. I have seen steady progress from Vaughn, and the idea of a Martin/Castillo/Jamal Williams defensive look next season must have the team's LB's chomping at the bit.
Career Outlook: The next 8-9 months may be the most important time of Vaughn's life. I think he's played well enough in the past few weeks that he'll be active and on the field in the playoffs. If he can show some ability, mixed with consistency, in that environment the team will be eager to unleash him on the rest of the NFL as a starter next season. How hard he works in the offseason, when he'll really have a chance to catch up to the rest of the league, will do the rest.
A lot of the analysis on Vaughn at this point is opinionated and formed just by what I see when he's on the field. He hasn't produced much in the way of stats, but he's playing infrequently at a position that doesn't normally put up a lot of stats to begin with. I personally think he's a starter in 2010 and a difference-maker for his career if he can stay healthy.
C OG, Auburn (Round 4, Pick 33 - 133rd Overall)
Can you see the trend of projects? Every pick comes with flaws. English has a number of them, Vasquez didn't know how to run-block/pull-block, Vaughn Martin might as well have been Bigfoot for all anybody knew. Now we make our way to Green, who was a pretty good Guard and was drafted to be Hardwick's replacement at Center. Based off the fact that nobody saw him play any Center for SD outside of training camp, and the Chargers have signed two off-the-street guys to be the backup Centers, I'm going to say that this project didn't work out so well. Green still has potential to eventually take over for Scott Mruczkowski as the future backup G/C, but if it's going to happen it's going to take some time.
Career Outlook: Best-case scenario for Tyronne is probably as a career backup.
A C- (Something really bugs me about this pick now. This is Nick Hardwick's third straight season where he's missed time due to an injury. Jeremy Newberry obviously wasn't coming back. Getting a legitimate backup Center needed to be a priority. Instead, the Chargers try to fill the role with another "project" pick and have to scramble to move Mooch to Center when the project doesn't work out, which made their depth at OG that much worse. I would've rather they sign a FA Center to backup Hardwick and use this pick on something else.)
Gartrell Johnson, RB, Colorado St. (Round 4, Pick 34 - 134th Overall)
I still like Gartrell, but he no longer fits in the Chargers offense. He wasn't much of a receiver out of the backfield, his pass-blocking was poor (even for a rookie) and there was zero chance of a big play from him when he had the ball in his hands. He's a much better fit for a grinding, run-focused team like the Giants that is just happy to consistently get 4 yard carries.
Looking back, for the reasons why he doesn't really fit with the Chargers offense, this was a silly pick. However, with the possible exception of James Davis, by the time it had gotten to the 134th pick there weren't many good RBs left. This is a big reason why I'm pushing for the Chargers to use a 1st (or at least 2nd) rounder on a RB this season to replace LaDainian Tomlinson. There were only two good RBs that were taken in the 3rd round (Glen Coffee and Shonn Greene), both had questionable hands and Coffee was taken with the 10th pick in that round (which the Chargers have no shot at).
Career Outlook: Certainly not the future Brandon Jacobs, as I had foolishly predicted. Gartrell might have a career as a goal-line RB somewhere, but it's not with the Chargers.
B D (The Chargers could've had Donald Brown, Beanie Wells or LeSean McCoy in the first round. All would've been better fits and NFL-ready. They waited too long to take a RB and were left with nothing.)
Brandon Hughes, CB, Oregon St. (Round 5, Pick 12 - 148th Overall)
I really hated this pick the day after the draft, but this is why I'm not a GM. Hughes went on IR in the preseason, and at his size he may have a hard time staying healthy in the NFL, but before he did he proved himself to be a very good all-around corner with excellent feet and very good ball skills. Hughes may have been the only player in this Chargers draft that wasn't a "project" in the sense that he wasn't being asked to switch positions or do anything he wasn't already doing in college.
Career Outlook: If he could stay healthy he has a future somewhere as a nickel CB. With the Chargers being more set at Safety in 2010 (Weddle, Oliver, Ellison....maybe Spillman), there will be a roster spot opening up. Whether or not Hughes makes the team, and plays in San Diego in 2010, has everything to do with how the team views Steve Gregory and what Antoine Cason does in the playoffs/offseason/training camp.
Kevin Ellison, S, USC (Round 6, Pick 16 - 189th Overall)
The scouting report on Ellison was that he was very good at covering TEs, but if he ever got matched up on a RB or WR he would be burnt toast. Enter Ron Rivera, who has basically turned Ellison into a guy that's either blitzing or covering the TE in man coverage (even if the rest of the team is playing zone). One of my favorite looks is a crazy Dime, with Weddle and Paul Oliver playing the deep safeties and Ellison playing the role at the 4th CB that matches up against the opposing TE. It's brilliant really.
Is Kevin Ellison a full-time starting SS for the Chargers? Not really. Depending on the play-call he can be a CB (against TEs), a deep-cover Safety (rare), a blitzing Safety (up-the-middle) or a pass-rushing OLB (which is when you see him "blitzing" as Shaun Phillips or Kevin Burnett drop into coverage on his side). His versatility, along with Phillips', is what has been driving Ron Rivera and the defense and it's not unlike the role that was played by Brian Dawkins in a very similar scheme in Philly.
Career Outlook: In my 2009 outlook for Kevin, I said "Even if Ellison doesn't win the job out of camp, he could be the starter by the end of the season." Well, he's the starter at SS because he plays most of the snaps there. However, at least this early in his career, what's giving him the most success is having a Defensive Coordinator that knows how to use him. If Rivera leaves in the offseason, I don't know that Ellison is nearly as effective and may not even be the starting SS anymore.
B- A (finding a potential Brian Dawkins clone in the 6th round is amazing.)
Demetrius Byrd, WR, LSU (Round 7, Pick 15 - 224th Overall)
We still know very little about Demetrius' health and how it has effected his ability to play football. I think he'll be given a chance to be the 4th WR next season, but his chances of getting that spot and making the team depend on if he can get back to where he was before the accident and what happens with Malcom Floyd, Vincent Jackson and Buster Davis.