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Draft hits and misses have shaped AFC West hierarchy

Discussion in 'NFL Draft' started by boltmanbz, Apr 14, 2008.

  1. boltmanbz

    boltmanbz Well-Known Member

    Oct 16, 2006

    Robert Gallery, George Foster and Junior Siavii are among the recent draft busts for Oakland, Denver and K.C. San Diego, meanwhile, has had good luck with several picks, including DE Igor Olshansky.

    It's not a mystery how the AFC West has reached its current lopsided state.

    Good drafting and bad drafting.

    The San Diego Chargers have drafted well in recent years. They have transformed from a floundering franchise to a perennial Super Bowl contender through the draft, bringing in franchise cornerstones such as RB LaDainian Tomlinson, LB Shawne Merriman and QB Philip Rivers (via a draft-day trade with the Giants involving Eli Manning).

    While San Diego has been enjoying the fruits of a successful reconstruction process, the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders have struggled at critical points of the draft in the past half decade.

    That's how the Chargers have become the clear rulers of the AFC West, with no legitimate signs of their dominance being threatened anytime soon. The Chargers have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. The other three teams are trying to find their way after a 2007 season in which the Chargers clinched the division crown with two weeks remaining and ended up with a four-game cushion in the standings.

    "San Diego, player per player, is probably as good as anybody in the National Football League and is probably one of the top-five teams," said Denver coach Mike Shanahan, whose team was outscored 64-6 in two games against the Chargers last season. "Personnel-wise, I would say they're right at the top, No. 1. That's saying a lot."

    The AFC West -- long regarded as one of the premier divisions in the game -- has crashed hard. The Broncos were 7-9 last season, only the second losing season in Shanahan's 13-season Denver reign. The Chiefs and Raiders both finished 4-12.

    "It's no secret that San Diego is the team to catch," Oakland coach Lane Kiffin said.

    This month's draft will be the first step for the three also-rans in the AFC West to try to catch up, Chargers-style. If there is a time for Denver, Kansas City and Oakland to reverse the trend, it is now. Oakland, in its usual top-10 area code, chooses fourth; Kansas City chooses fifth; and Denver rounds out the dirty dozen at No. 12.

    The Chargers? Well, they'll be enjoying lunch and perhaps a nap while their AFC West contemporaries frantically try to catch up. The Chargers don't make their first-round pick until No. 27, just eight picks before the Chiefs pick in the second round (the Raiders traded the No. 34 overall pick to Atlanta in the DeAngelo Hall trade).

    "You look how they [the Chargers] drafted," Kansas City coach Herman Edwards said. "They built their team through the draft. They are very talented."

    Indeed, Edwards knows the Chargers' approach to building a roster is the way to go. It was just five years ago that the Chargers were a laughingstock, finishing 4-12 in 2003. But they took advantage of their favorable draft positions and are an elite team, competing, on paper, with New England and Indianapolis for the best roster in the league.

    Since 2004, the Chargers connected on 14 players who are playing major roles. The 2004 draft was particularly terrific; standouts Igor Olshansky (defensive end), Nate Kaeding (place-kicker), Nick Hardwick (center) and Shaun Phillips (linebacker) were nabbed in Rounds 2 through 4 after the Rivers-Manning deal.

    The next year, after Merriman was taken at No. 12, San Diego picked up standout defensive lineman Luis Castillo, blossoming receiver Vincent Jackson and return man Darren Sproles. In 2006, the Chargers' first two picks were cornerback Antonio Cromartie and left tackle Marcus McNeill, two players scouts believe will be longtime Pro Bowlers.

    The Chargers have answered questions at every key position in the draft. The rest of the division? Not so much.

    The Raiders have been the biggest draft-choice wasters of the division. In the past four drafts, Oakland earned the No. 1, No. 7, No. 7 and No. 2 overall picks. But the Raiders has gotten little bang out of those picks, a nasty trend they must halt this year if they are going to meet owner Al Davis' expectations.

    Last year, Oakland took quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first pick. The jury is still very much out. In 2006, instead of taking quarterbacks Matt Leinart or Jay Cutler, Oakland took Texas defensive back Michael Huff, who was the subject of trade talk earlier this offseason.

    In 2005, Oakland traded its top pick to Minnesota in a package for WR Randy Moss, who took a vacation from being Randy Moss in his two years in Oakland. In 2004, the bad early-picking parade began with a bang in the form of offensive lineman Robert Gallery, who'll likely go down as the highest-paid guard never to make a Pro Bowl.

    For Denver, the poor choices have been less dramatic. Still, they have been damaging.

    The Broncos are hurting from poor draft classes in the middle of the decade. From the 2003-05 drafts, just three players remain in classes that featured 2003 first-round bust George Foster, a right tackle, and third-round reach running back Maurice Clarett. The former Ohio State star never even played in a preseason game in 2005. Denver has gotten better in the draft in the past two years but needs to replenish a roster that has suffered from weak classes.

    Of the three sub-.500 teams in the AFC West, Kansas City has had its good moments in the draft. Consider first-round picks such as Larry Johnson, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Dwayne Bowe.

    But the Chiefs have not had consistently fruitful drafts, and that has cost them depth. In 2005, they went 84 picks between Johnson and punter Dustin Colquitt. In 2004, their top pick was in the second round, and they lost big when defensive tackle Junior Siavii lasted just two seasons. The Chiefs have gotten old. The result is a team with many holes.

    It could be long road for the lacking three to catch up with the Chargers via this draft. Here's a quick look at the needs of each AFC West team:

    Denver: Defensive tackle, linebacker, safety, offensive line, receiver, kicker, punter.

    Kansas City: Quarterback, receiver, offensive line, defensive tackle, cornerback.

    Oakland: Offensive line, defensive line, receiver, safety.

    San Diego: Not much.

    "We just have to keep getting better like everyone else," said Chargers coach Norv Turner, clearly being kind to the rest of the division.

    Heading into the draft, it is clear that the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos have to reel in both impact and future talent if they have any chance of making this a balanced division again.

    Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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