Four Downs: Change abounds in AFC West


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Jan 22, 2006
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Four Downs: Change abounds in AFC West
Mike Tanier /

There has been plenty of off-season player movement in the AFC West. And that is especially true of the Denver Broncos, who were wise to acquire the Falcons' top draft pick in the John Abraham trade.

Here is a team-by-team look at how each of the AFC West's teams have fared since the season ended and what each can do to improve itself in the upcoming draft.

San Diego Chargers

The Fractured Front Office
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer spent much of early March engaged in a bitter war of words, a tongue-lashing that spilled across the pages of the San Diego Union Tribune, the North County Times and other Southern California newspapers. Eventually, team president Dean Spanos called them both into his office and dressed them down. Case closed ... for now.

The Drew Brees/Philip Rivers controversy was at the center of the dispute: Marty wanted Brees, while Smith preferred Rivers. The larger issue was a lack of communication between the veteran coach and a well-regarded member of the NFL's executive community. Smith reportedly has an inner circle of confidants, and Schottenheimer isn't part of it.

Most news outlets gave the story a predictable spin: Schottenheimer is an obstructionist dictator, unwilling to embrace the forward-thinking, cap-conscious philosophies of the more progressive Smith. With former offensive line coach Carl Mauck still taking shots at Schottenheimer over his dismissal, it was easy to point fingers at the head coach.

But the "Smith is right; Marty is wrong" slant doesn't add up. Since when does it make sense to let a reliable starting quarterback skip town with no compensation? Rivers may be ready to step up, but when we last watched him, he still looked a little like Foster Brooks leaving the bar at closing time whenever he dropped back to pass. The kid is clumsy. But with Ben Roethlisberger winning a Super Bowl and Eli Manning developing nicely, the GM may have decided to push up the timetable for his hand-picked prospect. Brees indicated several times this off-season that he felt someone in the organization was pushing him out the door, and that "someone" was the guy who drafted the other quarterback.

Smith and Schottenheimer can share blame for what became an ugly situation. Smith could have put together a sign-and-trade package if he insisted on moving Brees, and Marty shouldn't have gone public with his frustrations. What's sad is that two smart football men are fighting over some tiny turf: a "franchise turnaround" that consists of 21 wins in two years and one playoff appearance. If they cannot get along, the Chargers could easily slip back into their 4-12 funk. Smith is taking a heck of a gamble; it stands to reason that Schottenheimer is keeping his eyes on his chips. United, the Chargers stand. You know the rest.

Recent transactions
The Football Outsiders' spin on the players coming and going from San Diego:

Aaron Shea: Shea is an H-back who will replace tight end Justin Peelle, who signed with the Dolphins. Shea is a reliable receiver in the flat and an effective pass blocker. Look for the Chargers to run lots of two-tight end sets, with Shea staying in to block while Antonio Gates has all the fun.

Marlon McCree: McCree signed a five-year deal with the Chargers. He's a tough-but-undersized safety who reads plays well and makes a lot of tackles in run support. He's rarely injured; so the Chargers shouldn't have to play musical chairs in the secondary this year, but they still need help at cornerback. McCree can play either safety position, but he has a strong safety's mentality.

Departures: WR Reche Caldwell and LB Ben Leber were second and third round picks, respectively, in the 2002 draft; A.J. Smith took over the following season, though he had a hand in the 2002 selections (Peelle was also drafted in 2002). Both Caldwell and Leber showed flashes of potential, but Caldwell couldn't beat Eric Parker for the No. 2 receiver spot last year, and Leber will be adequately replaced by Shaun Philips (and, of course, Shawne Merriman). The Chargers now only have Quentin Jammer to show for their 2002 draft, and Jammer hasn't developed into a shut-down cornerback.

Draft preview
An overview of the names being tossed out by the Internet's mock draft community: Jonathan Joseph, CB, South Carolina (the current pick); Eric Winston, tackle, Miami; Santonio Holmes, WR, Ohio State; Chad Jackson, WR, Florida; Tye Hill, CB, Clemson; Donte Whitner, S, Ohio State.

A quick note about most mock drafters: they have zero memory. The Chargers selected WR Vincent Jackson as a project in the second round last year, and while he battled injuries and was slow to catch on, he's still in the team's plans. Mock drafters tend to forget that teams (successful ones, anyway) often draft a year or two ahead of their needs. The Chargers may draft a receiver on Day 1, but not in Round 1.

The other picks make more sense, though Winston would be a reach with the 19th pick. Whitner and McCree would make a fine 1-2 punch at safety: Whitner has the skills of a cornerback and can cover most slot receivers. The speedy-but-undersized Hill would also fill a need, as would Youboty. Basically, if he plays cornerback, the Chargers need him.

The Chargers need offensive linemen and defensive backs but are deep at most other positions, thanks in part to Schottenheimer's ability to get the most from late draft picks and free agents. If wheeler-dealer Smith needs to trade up a few spots to get the player he wants, the Chargers won't hesitate to move their second- or third-round pick.
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