Those that argue that one missed draft pick cannot set a franchise back for years are not aware of the history of the San Diego Chargers.
When the Chargers traded up in the 1998 Draft, it was for one reason only, to draft a franchise quarterback.
After a few productive years from journeyman Stan Humphries in the mid-90s, his career was cut short by injuries and ineffectiveness that often comes as players age and the rosters around them deteriorate.
Humphries led the Chargers to a Super Bowl appearance after the 1994 season, but he was hardly an elite quarterback.
With the offensive-minded Kevin Gilbride at head coach, the organization figured that a high profile rookie quarterback would be well-positioned for a sustained run of success.
Unfortunately the success rate of quarterbacks drafted in the top five or so in any NFL draft is about 50/50. In this particular draft, the consensus top two quarterbacks were Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Manning was the more highly-touted prospect throughout college, as the son of another former NFL quarterback Archie Manning and an accomplished four-year starter at Tennessee in addition to his great pedigree.
Leaf came on later in his career at Washington State, but after leading the Cougars to a Rose Bowl in his junior season, his performance in college was also as impressive as his physical tools.
The Chargers had the third pick of the draft, and with two quarterbacks that would surely be drafted among the top two picks, the organization felt compelled to make a trade into those positions.
The Arizona Cardinals owned the second pick of the draft and but already drafted a quarterback of the future in Jake Plummer the prior year, but the Chargers still offered a king's ransom to secure the second pick and prevent another quarterback-needy team from moving up before them.
Three early round picks and two starters later, the Chargers swapped positions with the Cardinals and got Leaf, who was passed over by the Colts in favor of Manning.
Leaf was a disaster in San Diego from the get-go. He skipped offseason workouts, partied hard off the field, alienated teammates and media with his immature and childish tantrums, the list goes on and on. And that does not even mention his horrific play on the field, which included fifteen interceptions compared to only two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 39.
Manning, on the other hand, was a model citizen and after taking a few lumps in his rookie season, he went on to put up record numbers in thirteen seasons as the quarterback in Indianapolis. Even the Cardinals, who missed with their third pick by drafting defensive end Andre Wadsworth, did far better in the second round selecting hometown hero Jake Plummer, as well as all of the spoils received in the trade for Leaf.
By the end of the 2000 season, Leaf was done as a member of the San Diego Chargers. He remains to this day one of the biggest busts in NFL draft history. Bigger than JaMarcus Russell in my opinion, who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007 and similarly released after three seasons, but his team did not trade future picks to obtain him.
The Leaf failure was a clear influence for the Chargers when traded away the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, not wanting to invest so heavily in a quarterback that may set the franchise back another 3-5 years. That year, instead of drafting Michael Vick, they traded down and selected LaDainian Tomlinson with the fifth overall pick. The history of those two players and their impact on the Chargers and Falcons speaks for itself, but the legacy of Leaf was still apparent.
This article will review the first round picks of the San Diego Chargers since 2000, and rank them according to their value to the franchise and its brief run of success that slowly deteriorated into annual disappointment to the point of embarrassment at times.
But any of those failures would pale in comparison to the Ryan Leaf era, which is still talked about with bitterness around the San Diego community. With Philip Rivers at quarterback, the Chargers will always be competitive, but whether they can get back to that elite level they enjoyed for a brief period in the mid-2000s remains to be seen.
14. Buster Davis (2007, 30th pick) - This speedster from LSU was drafted later than his college teammate Dwayne Bowe for a reason. Davis struggled to remain healthy and failed to provide a second option behind the up and coming Vincent Jackson.
With just 558 yards and two touchdowns over his four-year career in San Diego, he was one of the worst picks made by general manager A.J. Smith in a crucial year that followed a 14-2 season in which the Chargers had few, if any needs. This was also the year that Marty Schottenheimer was fired and replaced with Norv Turner, too bad the Bolts couldn't draft a coach in the first round.
13. Sammy Davis (2003, 30th pick) - A year after drafting a cornerback with the fifth overall pick, A.J. Smith tried to shore up the team's secondary with another cover corner late in the first round in 2003. Sammy Davis was a major disappointment with just three career interceptions in five seasons. He was given plenty of chances to live up to his draft billing, only to fail miserably.
12. Larry English (2009, 16th pick) - Even at the time, it seemed that English was drafted more as a warning to current starter Shawne Merriman than for his own ability.
He was a relative unknown coming out of Northern Illinois and was constantly injured, never providing the pass-rushing impact needed to keep the San Diego defense among the league's best. Merriman's production tailed off dramatically after the 2007 season and English was never able to provide a presence on the other side of Shaun Phillips.
11. Antoine Cason (2008, 27th pick) - Cason made his way into the starting lineup by his third season and played pretty well in 2010, but he could not maintain that level of consistency and was let go as a free agent shortly after the team cut ties with A.J. Smith, the general manager that drafted him. His replacements did not fare much better in 2013, but at least they were not overpaid first round picks that underperformed.
10. Luis Castillo (2005, 28th pick) - The pattern is becoming more clear, with so many missed draft picks in the mid-2000s, especially on defense, the team's record would be adversely affected at some point. Castillo actually played very well early in his career, but he was also lined up next to Jamal Williams, who was the best nose tackle in the NFL, occupying blockers and freeing up his teammates to make plays. Castillo is now better remembered for getting outrageously overpaid by a general manager in denial about his actual ability, and missing more games than he played due to injury.
9. Melvin Ingram (2012, 18th pick) - It is way too early to make a judgment on Melvin Ingram, but he played sparingly as a rookie and missed most of his second season with an achilles injury suffered in the offseason. But he did return late in 2013 and had a clear impact, so his potential is clearly there. Bolt fans are expecting big things from Ingram in 2014, so he should make his way up this list as his career advances.
8. Corey Liuget (2011, 18th pick) - The defensive lineman from Illinois continues to have a quiet impact and improve every year since he joined the Chargers. With 13.5 sacks in three years from a position that is not expected to generate much pressure, Liuget is getting close to playing at a Pro Bowl level without the same talent around him as some of his predecessors.
7. Ryan Mathews (2010, 12th pick) - Expectations were unfairly high for Mathews after A.J. Smith traded up in the 2010 draft to select him as a replacement for the legendary LaDainian Tomlinson. He struggled with injuries and fumbles throughout his first three years in San Diego, but still managed to post an impressive 4.5 yards per carry. By 2013, ball security was no longer an issue and he became an impact player after his best season. Although he is not a home-run threat, he is a consistent positive yardage back and legitimate NFL starter.
6. Antonio Cromartie (2006, 19th pick) - Although he only played four seasons in San Diego, Cromartie had a big impact on and off the field.
He fathered ten children from eight different mothers until he had a vasectomy in 2011, but he is most remembered for his ten interception season in 2007, including three against Peyton Manning.
He also returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown that season, setting an NFL record. Despite his athletic ability, Cromartie is not a willing tackler, as evidenced by his pathetic attempt in a crucial 2009 playoff game against the Jets that sealed the upset.
But he had his moments with the Chargers, and even got back a second rounder when he was traded away in 2010.
5. Quentin Jammer (2002, 5th pick) - Jammer did not have the flashy playmaking ability of his fellow corner Cromartie, but he was a solid starter for eleven seasons and developed into a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback despite never being honored as such.
He struggled with pass interference penalties early and often with the Chargers, but he was a sure tackler from the corner position and a strong locker room influence. Longevity alone puts Jammer in the top five, but he did not provide the elite play expected from a top five draft pick.
4. Shawne Merriman (2005, 12th pick) - Merriman was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2005, the NFL sack leader in 2006 despite playing in just twelve games, and made his third straight Pro Bowl in 2007, but after a knee injury late that season and ongoing allegations of performance enhancing drug use, his career was derailed and he was eventually released by the Chargers.
But his impact those first three seasons was obvious, as comparisons to Lawrence Taylor were legitimately warranted. With Merriman providing relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defense was at its best, dictating the pace and disrupting the timing of most of the offenses they faced.
3. D.J. Fluker (2013, 11th pick) - While it may be a bit early to put Fluker this high on the list, his impact as a rookie this past season cannot be overstated. He excelled as a run blocker, opening roles on the right side of the line for running backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead to run through with ease. The massive book-end from Alabama also provided a competitive, winning attitude in the locker room and even moved to the left side when injuries required him to. He should be body slamming opponents for the Chargers for the next ten years barring injury.
2. Philip Rivers (2004, 5th pick) - While Rivers has not enjoyed the same success as fellow quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger drafted in the same class, he has done his part in San Diego, putting up impressive numbers and keeping the team competitive throughout all the distractions around him. He was 14-2 in his first year as a starter, and carried an overmatched team to a playoff victory this past season.
He is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL not to have won a Super Bowl and has the intensity and leadership capable of changing that soon. By trading the number one pick in 2004, the Chargers also got several other key players in addition to Rivers. Although some may argue that the decision to replace Drew Brees with Rivers haunts the Chergers franchise to this day, that cannot be guaranteed. A Super Bowl victory could put Rivers atop this list.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson (2001, 5th pick) - Running backs are rarely drafted in the top five nowadays, and the ones that are better be sure fire superstars. Tomlinson was exactly that, possessing all the necessary skills required to be a Hall of Fame running back in the NFL.
He ran with speed and power, hit the holes with authority, caught passes out of the backfield like a receiver, and excelled in pass protection. He set a single season record with 29 touchdowns in 2006 and his next stop is enshrinement into Canton as perhaps the best player ever to play in San Diego.