Excitement starts early for fans of NFL Draft

NFL Draft 2005 has come and gone. For most, it’s an event that is … well, it’s not really much of an event at all. But for sports fans, true sports fans, the NFL draft is a day of excitement, intrigue and ultimate possibility. Draft day is for the purists, the elitists. It’s for those fans who still cringe when they hear the name Tony Mandarich, the offensive tackle who the Packers selected second overall in 1989 before the likes of legendary Lions running back Barry Sanders and “Primetime” Deion Sanders. It’s for those fans who still have, who still look at and who still regret buying the jersey of — shudder — Ryan Leaf.

Since the draft is far too exhausting to be covered fully within one article, I will instead place the focus upon the same team that selected Leaf second overall in 1998, hoping the quarterback from Washington State would be a franchise player, and not the freaking pissant he became. I turn away from mistakes of the past and look with hope toward the future of the San Diego Chargers.

The Chargers made a miraculous ascension last year, going from the number-one pick in the draft as a result of their league-worst 4-12 record to making the playoffs and winning the AFC West division with their startling 12-4 record. Going into the draft this year, things were different in San Diego than they had been for many years. No longer was there a team faced with desperate needs at numerous positions. Instead, the Chargers were a team with the luxury of simply filling in a few holes and adding depth to an already-solid team.

The Chargers sat calmly during the first round, not using the two picks they had — one as a result of the past year’s Draft Day trade of quarterback Eli Manning to the New York Giants — to try to trade up any further than their already-strong standings with the 12th and 28th picks. The team selected pass-rushing defensive end Shawn Merriman out of Maryland, acquiring a player who would fit well within the team’s 3-4 defensive scheme and who could immediately improve one of the team’s weaknesses in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. With the 28th pick, the Chargers selected defensive tackle Luis Castillo from Northwestern. Some suspected that Castillo would fall out of the first round due to revelations that he had used an illegal substance in an effort to quicken his recovery from an elbow injury. However, there is no denying that Castillo’s talent is worthy of a first-round choice, and his addition brings further aggression to the Chargers’ defensive line.

In the second round, the Chargers were able to address their need at wide receiver. With the 29th pick in the round, the Chargers selected wide receiver Vincent Jackson out of Northern Colorado. Jackson, at 6 feet, 5 inches and 230 pounds, will develop into a huge target for quarterback Drew Brees (or possibly last year’s first-round pick quarterback Philip Rivers), and is blessed with exceptional speed for his size that should further help the Chargers in years to come.

Without a pick in the third round, the Chargers sat idle until the fourth round, when they used the 130th overall selection on speedy Kansas State runningback Darren Sproules. Sproules was looked upon as lacking the size and build to be a future NFL runningback. The Chargers, however, already with superstar runningback LaDainian Tomlinson and strong back-ups in Jesse Chatman and third-stringer Michael “The Burner” Turner, will be able to utilize Sproules’ speed and versatility, filling a need for a kick returner and also adding another pass-catching weapon from the runningback slot.

With their final three picks in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds, the Chargers selected offensive tackles Wesley Britt of Alabama, Wes Sims of Oklahoma and center Scott Mruczkowski of Bowling Green, respectively. Britt was an effective four-year starter for the Crimson Tide who has the size and attitude to become a team leader on the offensive line. Sims, who played left tackle in college, may be used as a guard with the Chargers, and Mruczkowski should add depth to the line.

Of course, no team drafts perfectly and the Chargers too should be able to identify needs not addressed in the draft. They were unable to find a speedy free safety, leaving themselves with new acquisition and former Green Bay back-up Bhawoh Jue penciled in as starter and last year’s starter, calming veteran Jerry Wilson, as the back-up. The Chargers might regret not having tried to move up a few picks to grab either wide receiver Mark Clayton of Oklahoma or Roddy White of University of Alabama Birmingham, either of whom seems more prepared to contribute in an immediate fashion. In the end, the Chargers and their growing legion of fans should view the draft as a success. This team seems headed on a path toward embodying their role not just as the Chargers, but the San Diego Super Chargers.

Oh, and Ryan Leaf, I still loathe thee.