Editor's Note: David Marver wrote half of this post, but is now stranded somewhere in the middle of Poland without internet. I covered the last three selections, but everything before that is him.
Coming off a trip to the AFC Championship game, the Chargers weren't perceived to have too many needs heading into the 2008 NFL Draft. Boy was that naive. As you'll see below, the Chargers 2008 draft was perhaps the worst in the past decade-plus of Chargers drafts. Had the Chargers taken a replenishing view (like, say, the Giants tend to take), rather than the short-term one I believe A.J. took, the Chargers window wouldn't have faded as quickly as it did.
Time to go round-by-round, pick-by-pick, evaluating each selection before grading the draft as a whole.
1.27 Antoine Cason
Cason was the 5th of 5 corners taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Combined, those five corners have two Pro Bowls; clearly not the best of classes despite the frequency in which they were taken. While no corner selected after Cason can boast of a Pro Bowl either, demonstrating that we didn't miss out on a franchise player at the equivalent position, there were some more productive corners taken relatively soon after him: Brandon Flowers and Tracy Porter to name two. In addition, corner wasn't the biggest of needs on the Chargers roster. Yes, the Patriots had just set the league on fire throwing the football, and the Chargers had lost their nickel corner (Florence) to free agency. But they had bigger needs: defensive end and inside linebacker to name a few.
Furthering a thought from above: the Chargers didn't really miss out on a franchise player with this selection, period. Incredibly, DeSean Jackson (selected in the early second) was the only Pro Bowler, excluding running backs, selected from Antoine Cason all the way until the fifth round (where Carl Nicks was selected). As the Chargers had a still-productive (but dinged up) LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, RB wasn't a huge need; I can't fault them for not reaching for Ray Rice, Matt Forte, or Jamaal Charles at 1.27.
Cason's play was certainly not what you'd like to see out of a first round corner: just three years as a starter, zero of which were what you'd consider 'high quality', and twelve career interceptions. Way too often we found ourselves asking "why is Antoine Cason ten yards off the line-of-scrimmage" before the play and "why was Antoine Cason ten yards behind the receiver" after a touchdown. I'm sure I won't miss him this season.
That said, he wasn't a complete bust. He played 80 games and was serviceable. He would have made a good backup corner. Obviously, that's not what the Chargers (or fans) were hoping when they selected him, and there's no question the Chargers would have been better served selecting someone else. Especially noting their steady decline thereafter.
2.26 (Traded for Chris Chambers)
Remember when the Chargers traded for Chris Chambers? Bonus points if you blocked it from your memory. The Chargers traded their second round pick in 2008 (this pick) in exchange for Chris Chambers. At the time of the deal, the Chargers were 3-3 and Eric Parker was on his way to IR.
He's a guy who's going to come in right away and he's going to be able to help us. - Norv Turner
While Chambers didn't perform at a level that Chargers fans had hoped for when they sacrificed their second round pick mid-season in exchange for him, he was perhaps the Chargers best weapon in the 2007-2008 postseason: he had 121 yards against Tennessee, 67 yards and a TD in Indianapolis, and 7 catches for 90 yards in the AFC Championship Game.
So, yes, while Chambers flamed out following that postseason, subsequently getting dealt to Kansas City after catching just 41 passes in his next 21 games as a Charger, he definitely fulfilled some of the value of this pick in the 2007-2008 postseason. I also have a hard time faulting the Chargers for adding to a championship caliber roster while they had the opportunity.
The Dolphins ended up selecting Chad Henne with this pick. Honestly, it wasn't an awful selection noting what went around the same slot: the next Pro Bowler selected , Jamaal Charles, was picked 15 picks later, and 10 of the next 25 selections are actually already out of the NFL. The only guy in that group (besides Charles) that would have helped the Bolts was Charles Godfrey; so pardon me when I'm not crying over losing this pick.
3.06 Jacob Hester
I would argue this was one of A.J. Smith's worst decisions/picks as Chargers G.M. Any time you deal a better pick (the Chargers 2009 second round selection) and another pick on top (the Chargers 2008 5th round pick) to a rival so that you can select a fullback who can play special teams, you're making a mistake. That's what A.J. did with this one, dealing the aforementioned picks to the New England Patriots for the ability to select Jacob Hester.
And while Hester certainly wasn't a bad player, he was never a great run blocking fullback, perhaps contributing to LT's precipitous decline. He was adequate catching passes out of the backfield and certainly contributed on special teams, but that's not enough.
If you make this trade to select a player with a high ceiling that doesn't work out, then oh well. I'm sure we'd give A.J. a hard time for that, but the process itself wouldn't have been a major issue. However, with this pick there wasn't really a way for it to work out at all; if Hester had been the best blocking fullback in the NFL and a special teams stud, I still don't think that warrants a second and fifth round selection in the hands of one of the best teams in the NFL. So the grade he's getting for this pick is reflective of the fact that the process was flawed from the get-go, no matter what.
The only reason it isn't an F is because of the fake punts Hester successfully pulled off. Successful fake punts are always awesome and I would hate to not reward them.
4.27 (Used in 2007 Supplemental Draft): Paul Oliver
The Chargers didn't have a 4th round pick in the 2008 draft because it was forfeit in the 2007 supplemental draft when they selected Paul Oliver. Oliver was a serviceable Chargers backup for four seasons before joining New Orleans in 2011. A.J. Smith commented on the selection:
You know how we like depth. We'll add Paul to the mix as a Charger and time will tell. - A.J. Smith
And time tells that it was a decent selection; Oliver started a few handful of games for the Chargers, providing depth at free safety. That said, he was never a true starter, and that supplemental pick could have spent on someone slightly better. Like, for example the other supplemental selection in the 2007 draft, Jared Gaither, who Baltimore selected in the 5th round.
5.166 Marcus Thomas
This was around the time that it was becoming evident that LaDainian Tomlinson was wearing down, and Michael Turner had already signed with the Atlanta Falcons. The team needed to draft it's next starting Running Back, and A.J. Smith thought he found the person in Marcus Thomas. He was wrong.
6.192 DeJuan Tribble
I had to look up Tribble's position because he never actually played in an NFL game. He was a Cornerback, and probably not much of one at 5'8" and 189 lbs. He didn't make the Chargers, or any other team.
I understand that the Chargers were losing Drayton Florence, who had lost his starting position to Antonio Cromartie in 2007, but spending two draft picks on Cornerbacks seems a bit much.
7.234 Corey Clark
I'm not mad at this pick. Clark had good instincts, but needed to add bulk and needed some coaching. He bounced back and forth between the roster and the practice squad for two years before retiring ("for unknown reasons").
You're supposed to use seventh round picks to take shots on projects like this. It's not really A.J.'s fault that it didn't work out.