A YEAR AGO, when they were well established as the NFL's version of the hapless Los Angeles Clippers, the San Diego Chargers got a break: the first pick in a draft stocked with talented quarterbacks. San Diego needed players at many positions, but a quarterback topped the list. You remember the rest: Eli Manning, the star passer out of Ole Miss, sent word to the Chargers that he wasn't interested in playing for them; general manager A.J. Smith twice appealed to Eli's father, Archie, asking him to reconsider; the Mannings stuck to their belief that San Diego could not build a winner.
"The last time Archie told me no, I really hit rock bottom," Smith said last Saturday night, after the first day of the 2005 NFL draft. "When a player tells you there's only one team he won't play for, and it's your team--and you're trying so hard to turn around the image of a losing team--it's embarrassing. Humiliating. You go to bed, and your mental computer won't shut down, and you just lie there. Pretty soon it's daylight, and somehow you've got to get up and try to find a way out of it."
The way out began with the calculated move of picking Manning anyway, then trading him that same day to the New York Giants for N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers, whom the Giants had taken with the No. 4 pick, plus a third-round pick in last year's draft, and first- and fifth-round picks in '05. Last Saturday, after the final piece of that trade fell into place, it appeared the Mannings' snub might turn out to be one of the best things to ever happen to San Diego. The third-round pick was spent on kicker Nate Kaeding, who hit 20 of 25 field goal tries last year; the fifth was dealt last June to Tampa Bay for starting left tackle Roman Oben, who proved to be a godsend for a leaky offensive line. Finally, the first-rounder, the No. 12 pick this year, brought the Chargers the top-rated defensive-front-seven player on their draft board: Shawne Merriman, a 6'4", 272-pound defensive end-- outside linebacker from Maryland. He's a Tasmanian devil of a pass rusher and could win the starting left outside linebacker spot in camp.
With its own first-round choice, 28th overall, San Diego made a surprise pick in Luis Castillo of Northwestern, who had been the top-rated defensive tackle in the draft until he tested positive for androstenedione at the scouting combine in February. (Soon after, he sent a letter to each NFL team, explaining that he had used andro only to help him recover from a strained ligament in his left elbow that he suffered on the second play of the 2004 season.) That blip aside, the Chargers are still one of the feel-good stories in the league. They went from 4-12 in 2003 to 12-4 and an AFC West championship last year, and Rivers hasn't started a game yet. If Drew Brees, who morphed from a struggling passer about to lose his job into a Pro Bowl performer (27 touchdown passes, seven interceptions), plays great again in 2005, there might be one more act left in the Manning deal: Smith is reserving the right to trade Rivers after the season.
"I'm ecstatic," Smith said as the third round of the draft wound down on Saturday night. "Our fortunes have completely turned around. We've jump-started the winning, and we've drafted players who have every chance to keep it going."
While Merriman plays a little stiff and didn't establish his dominance at any one position in college, he should be a good fit in San Diego. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips employs a 3-4 scheme in which linebackers--as many as five play on some third-down situations--often line up as defensive ends. Merriman, with 22 sacks and 331/2 other tackles for loss in three seasons at Maryland, says he feels well suited to San Diego's variety of schemes. "I hope they have the same confidence in me that I have in myself," he says. "I'm the guy who will put the fear of God into quarterbacks' eyes."
The 6'3", 303-pound Castillo, who moved to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic as a child, is expected to generate an interior pass rush. He said on Saturday that he'd be willing to pay back his rookie signing bonus--likely to be around $3 million--if he ever tests positive again. "It's the biggest mistake I've ever made," he said. "That's not the person I am. I was desperate, and I did something I regret, something I know I'll be paying for for the rest of my life."
Nevertheless, with sports in the grip of steroidmania--and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and players' union chief Gene Upshaw scheduled to appear before a congressional committee this week to answer questions about the NFL's record on the drug--the Castillo pick doesn't fit the Chargers' new image. "Totally understood," said Smith. "But we've investigated thoroughly, and we're sure this was a one-time situation."
The Castillo pick would surely blow up in the faces of the old Chargers. But the way they're going now, he could turn into the second coming of Joe Greene. --P.K.