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Pivotal draft awaits Smith, Chargers

By BERNIE WILSON - AP Sports Writer
    2012-04-23 12:53

SAN DIEGO (AP) - A.J. Smith is on the clock.

For the San Diego Chargers, the three-day NFL draft that starts Thursday night could be about much more than simply helping to restock a once-powerful team that has fallen back to the pack.

It might also be about saving the jobs of general manager Smith and coach Norv Turner, who remain employed despite the Chargers missing the playoffs for two straight years and having just one playoff win in four seasons.

Team President Dean Spanos didn't go as far as to issue any playoffs-or-else ultimatums the day he made the unpopular decision that Smith and Turner would stay on.

He made it clear, though, that the Chargers need to win.

San Diego is 17-16 since the end of the 2009 season, including an embarrassing home playoff loss to the New York Jets in January 2010 that was the Chargers' last postseason appearance.

A six-game losing streak in the middle of the 2011 season left the Chargers at 8-8. One more win would have earned them the title in the mediocre AFC West. Instead, it went to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Now the Broncos have Peyton Manning.

More than three months after getting a reprieve, Smith claims he doesn't feel any pressure.

``I'd like to do a good job in all drafts,'' he said. ``I'd like it to all be positive and have everyone contribute and help us win and stay away from injuries. I'm only here for as long as Dean Spanos says I'm the GM. That's all that really matters. I'm thankful for the opportunity every year I get to come back.''

The Chargers have the 18th pick overall. Smith had a productive haul in free agency, but the Bolts still need impact defensive players and reinforcements on the offensive line, where four-time Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman retired because of a concussion.

Smith has come under fire for the erosion of talent from a roster that at one time was considered among the NFL's best.

For the most part, Smith has been living off the fumes of his 2004 draft, when he took Eli Manning with the first pick overall despite Archie Manning's request that he not do so, then swapped the player's rights to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers and additional picks he used on kicker Nate Kaeding that year and Shawne Merriman the following year.

Smith's recent drafts have produced more busts than impact players. Spanos said Smith's drafts from 2007-09 ``were not as good'' as earlier drafts.

Of Smith's last six first-round picks, starting in 2006, Antonio Cromartie and Craig Davis are gone.

Cornerback Antoine Cason has struggled, outside linebacker Larry English hasn't lived up to his billing, running back Ryan Mathews went to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement and defensive end Corey Liuget had a quiet rookie season.

Smith loaded up on offensive players in free agency, signing wide receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal to counter the loss of Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay. He re-signed left tackle Jared Gaither, who helped stabilize the line the last five games after he was picked up off waivers. Gaither replaced the injured Marcus McNeill, who was released in March.

Smith added linebacker Jarret Johnson from Baltimore.

The consensus is that the Chargers still need to add impact players on defense, including a pass rusher and a strong safety. San Diego was last in the NFL in third-down defense, and coordinator Greg Manusky was fired after just one year on the job.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw of Alabama and Nick Perry of Southern Cal are possibilities to be taken with the Chargers' first pick.

``I think we're always looking for impact players. They're the ones that help you win immediately. They're the ones people see. Defense is still an emphasis, if they're still there. If there's an outstanding offensive player there, you have to look at that,'' Smith said.

Some observers wouldn't be surprised if the Chargers took an offensive lineman with their first pick.

Smith said he doesn't mind being in the 18th spot. He's moved both up and down in previous drafts.

``We kind of like where we are. We don't have far to go if we want to get aggressive and go on the attack. If we want to bail out, we don't have far to go to get some picks and get good players. We're in the middle of the action in a lot of ways.''

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