Almost as intriguing as the draft for Chargers fans is the yearly haul of undrafted free agents who are signed to tryout contracts.
While these pickups can be considered by some to be the dregs of the 2012 new NFL talent, the fact of the matter is that there are still some very good players left unclaimed as the draft ends, especially since the draft was shortened to seven rounds from 12 in the early 1990's.
Also the Chargers have success in attracting talented but under-regarded players and developing them, whether they come from small colleges, such as Wyoming's Malcom Floyd, who had success in the WAC and was nurtured along to his present status as the Chargers' de facto #1 wideout. Others were touted by team coaches or college coaches with close ties to the team. Recently retired perrenial Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman, was recommended by Chargers Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron, who had coached him at Indiana. Mr. Dielman started his collegiate career as a blocking tight end, then was converted to a defensive lineman and was ultimately undrafted. He was developed as a guard by the Chargers staff, with great results.
The cause célèbre is of course Antonio Gates, who played football in high school but decided to concentrate on basketball at Kent State. Being seen as too short to be a successful power forward in the NBA, he switched gears and scheduled workouts with NFL teams and was snapped up by the Chargers, the first team he auditioned for. His story has inspired all teams to scour other sports for athletes who could have success in the NFL, and we will see more rugby and basketball players as the competition for talent intensifies. Pro Bowlers such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham and the Packers Jermichael Finley are part of the new breed of tight ends ushered in by Mr. Gates, pure athletes who are too tall and too fast to be covered effectively by cornerbacks, safeties or linebackers. We can hope that our fourth round pick Ladarius Green has the same kind of success.
As the spring 'voluntary workouts' are conducted and we get to know these undrafted guys, we'll start to get a sense of who they are and what they bring. We'll start to have favourites. Last year, Bryan Walters stole our hearts with a pre-season Week 1 kickoff return for a touchdown. We all saw him as our second shot at Wes Welker, a plucky small receiver out of an unlikely school (Cornell) who could succeed through dedication and smarts rather than great physical gifts. Of course, roster pressures and injuries prevented him from being kept on the back burner and simmering for a while, we couldn't wait for him to mature and had to throw him on the field where he delivered relatively pedestrian results. He was eventually cut late in the season when needs in other areas made him a luxury we couldn't afford, Vincent Brown was the WR the team needed to invest its coaching energy and roster spot on. We wish Mr. Walters good luck in trying to catch on with the Vikings this year.
Another diamond in the rough was Darryl Gamble, a linebacker from Georgia who impressed during the pre-season and was placed on the practice squad. He was activated in December, injuries depleting our Linebacker corps to the point of desperation, and he didn't embarrass himself. He'll have his work cut out for him again this season to make the squad, but we do need help at LB, so he does have an opportunity, let's hope he takes it.
A quick perusal of this year's hopefuls shows six Wide Receivers, a lot of them in the classic mold of the Chargers receivers of late, meaning quite tall. I counted four of them at 6'4" and another at 6'3", which may mean more about the direction the sport is going than a San Diego predilection, and I like it. I'm going to miss Vincent Jackson, I'm already bummed we had to let Seyi Ajirotutu go last season, I want some giant WR's on this team giving 5'10" cornerbacks nightmares. Of note, Paul Cox is one of these 6'4'' receivers, and he happens to hail from Mississippi Valley State, which should ring a bell for those of you who like Hall of Fame receivers.
The fact that six out of twenty are WR's says a lot I think about how the team feels about its roster strength at that position. We are left with a lot of maybes with Mr. Jackson gone to Tampa. If Malcom can stay healthy, if Vincent Brown can progress and build on the flashes he showed last season, if Robert Meachem is ready to step forward and be a frontline WR instead of the complementary piece he was in New Orleans, if Eddie Royal can be the multi-threat force he was as a rookie, before injuries and subpar quarterbacking robbed him of his magic, then we'll have a solid corps. But that's a lot of ifs. Chances are slim that this all falls into place. It could be another long year for Philip Rivers, especially with Mike Tolbert gone and Antonio Gates slowing down.
A mild surprise is that only 3 DB's are part of this group. I expected to see more invites, with the team hoping to hit on one of them. We've drafted a lot of corners and safeties in recent years, and get competence, we get journeymen, but no stalwarts. Antoine Cason is another guy we counted on who plateaued last season, if he didn't actually regress. We need all these guys we keep adding to the roster to grab this opportunity, to seize the day, instead of hanging on and being replaced by other lackluster players down the road. We need to stop the churning and get some stability. It's up to Mr. Cason, along with Darrell Stuckey and Shareece Wright and Marcus Gilchrist to step forward and assume the responsibility for this defence. Eric Weddle can't do everything, and Quentin Jammer needs some help.