It seems like forever since the Chargers have missed the playoffs. In the last few years they have become the class of the AFC West. With a roster stocked with good young players for several years, San Diego finally had an offseason where it was faced with difficult roster decisions. Gone are Ladanian Tomlinson and Jamal Williams, the heart and soul of their offensive and defensive units respectively.  Charlie Whitehurst, the teams 3rd string quarterback, was dealt to Seattle for what appeared to be a bounty of picks. The Chargers have drafted well in recent years and appear to have plenty of leadership on both sides of the ball. Phillip Rivers and Vincent Jackson figure to take over as the team’s primary playmakers while the linebacking corps remains the team’s defensive strength. The team is unlikely to have early picks for some time as they remain far and away the best team in the AFC West.  Brent Foshee grades out the Chargers draft.

The first big move on draft day involved San Diego trading up with Miami for the 12th overall choice. The Chargers gave up two very valuable selections but they clearly loved Ryan Matthews and had to have him. Matthews had three very solid collegiate seasons and is the type of big-bodied power back that will serve as a good compliment to Darren Sproles. Patient in waiting for holes to develop, Matthews has enough quickness to make defenders miss the first tackle besides the power to duck his shoulder and run through them. It remains to be seen whether or not he can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield, although those same questions were prevalent for LaDainian Tomlinson when he was drafted out of TCU. This appears to be a very good fit for both team and player and it’s tough not to admire San Diego’s aggressiveness acquiring Matthews.

While the team does consider linebacker to be a strength the Chargers have stockpiled outside linebackers in recent years and relied on solid but unspectacular play from their inside linebackers. Donald Butler offered the team an opportunity to upgrade that position in round three. Butler has good size, strength and plays faster than his timed speed. Against the run his is a fierce tackler that gets low and wraps up ball carriers. As a pass defender Butler is less comfortable but still has the athletic abilities to learn to play effective coverage. Butler was a bit of a surprise pick with the 79th selection but he should be able to challenge for a starting job as early as the late part of 2010.

San Diego used their next selection to bolster their secondary by selecting Kansas safety Darrell Stuckey. Stuckey is an aggressive defender that shows a quick burst and the ability to make plays up field. He struggles in man coverage or defending large zones down field. Struckey should be an excellent special teams player his first season and has a real chance to grow into a starting strong safety with time. He must become more aware and consistent but he has a knack for making the big play, be it a sack, big hit, interception, or timely tackle, which the Chargers have been missing from most of their safeties.

As one of the very few two gap defensive tackles available in this years draft Cam Thomas represents great value in the 5th round. With Jamal Williams having been cut in the off season the Chargers are in need of a wide body to clog the middle and keep offensive linemen off of their linebackers. Thomas, at his best, is a beast that demands double teams and can control the center of the line of scrimmage. He is, however, terribly inconsistent and disappears for large stretches at a time. The Chargers coaching staff will most likely try to light a fire under him with the hopes Thomas strives to become the player that many feel he can be. It would be a disappointment if he was unable to challenge for meaningful playing time by 2011 at the latest.

Charlie Whitehurst’s departure opened up a spot for a developmental quarterback and the team chose former Tennessee signal caller Jonathan Crompton as their next project. Crompton always possessed the physical skills necessary to play quarterback in the NFL. It’s his mental game that has raised red flags. Crompton, throughout his college career, made questionable decisions and rarely followed his progressions through to the end. He’ll get a year to hold a clip board and watch Rivers run the offense before he gets meaningful preseason reps. If during this time the light goes on and Crompton starts to improve his discipline and awareness, he could push for the teams back up position.

With Antonio Gates starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel it makes perfect sense for the Chargers to begin developing talent at the tight end position. Enter Dedrick Epps. Epps is a great athlete that still has plenty of growth potential in his game. He is marginally effective as a blocker and could stand to add a dozen pounds of muscle to his frame. That coupled with learning proper blocking technique might be enough to get him on the field. As a receiver he’s athletic and fast but doesn’t play with a lot of spirit or toughness. Still, this late in the draft, selecting Epps makes sense based on his upside.

Grade: (C+): The Chargers will have different faces in 2010 but they will likely be the same team stylistically. San Diego clearly felt that they needed to get their running back of the future this year and gave away a lot in order to move up and grab him. Their mid round picks were good value for players that could eventually grow into starters or rotational players. Their late round selections appear to have been based purely on upside, as it should be. Still, I wonder if San Diego couldn’t have found a better way to acquire Matthews and still keep a pick in the second round.