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2010 draft class performing

Posted Feb 14, 2012

All four of San Diego’s top picks played at least 14 games in 2011 and made major progress on the field during their second seasons.

SAN DIEGO – A Pro Bowl running back, a game-changing linebacker, a special teams ace and a solid rotational defensive lineman is not a bad haul.

General Manager A.J. Smith now has drafted a Pro Bowler in six of the last eight years. That’s including 2011, a group of eight rookies with no organized offseason.

The Chargers added 2007 to that list last year with second-round pick Eric Weddle selected to the annual all-star contest.

But optimism for San Diego’s long-term future may center on the remaining four players from the 2010 class, which overcame an injury-filled first campaign and the lack of an offseason to become one of the brightest story lines of the year.

“For the Class of 2010, we’re very happy with the development,” Smith said. “We’ve always felt that it takes about three years to get somewhat of a gauge on a draft class and what their contributions will be.

“But right now as far as the entire organization, I’m talking about the front office and coaches jointly, we really like the development of what we see.”

First-round pick Ryan Mathews, whom Smith traded up to select, finished seventh in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, topped 1,000 rushing yards, caught 50 passes and made his first Pro Bowl.

San Diego did not have a second-round selection in 2010, but chose Donald Butler with the 79th overall pick in the third round.

Butler finished second on the team with 102 tackles this season and became the team’s only defensive player with a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also scored a defensive touchdown.

Fourth-round pick Darrell Stuckey emerged as a stud on special teams, narrowly missing the Chargers’ Special Teams Player of the Year award while tying for the team lead with 12 tackles. Stuckey recovered a crucial onside kick against Green Bay and also made several impact stops on kick returners.

Fifth-round selection Cam Thomas emerged as a steady defensive tackle. He finished third on the team in quarterback hits (10) and led the defensive line with four sacks. Thomas also started two games in place of an injured Antonio Garay.

“Two things have happened, I think, with that group. No. 1, three of them have overcome injuries that limited their opportunities in their first year,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “All the guys were productive players coming out of college, so I think that’s a starting point.

“People want to make a rush judgment after year one, but it’s an adjustment to play in this league. The time they put in and the time the coaches put in with them has paid off.”

Injuries waylaid the class during their rookie season. Butler, Stuckey and Thomas played a combined seven games, the former two because of injuries.

Butler didn’t even dress for a preseason contest after rupturing his Achilles tendon during training camp. Stuckey practiced with the starting defense during the offseason before a groin injury forced him to miss valuable practice time and slowed his development.

Mathews paced the group with 12 games played, but the running back labored through much of the season with a high-ankle sprain, often missing practice and taking the field at less than 100 percent.

Then the labor negotiations halted player activity at Chargers Park for most of April, May, June and July.

The four players missed just four combined games in 2011 – a pair each by Mathews and Stuckey, including the season finale with no chance at the playoffs.

Mathews and Butler started a combined 30 games while becoming leaders on offense and defense during just their second seasons. The players voted Mathews the team’s Offensive Player of the Year, and Butler became a starred guy on scouting reports according to more than one opposing head coach.

The role for Stuckey and Thomas could increase as well as the ability of all four as they go through their first full offseason as professional football players.

“I think they all were affected by not having the offseason opportunities they normally would have (last year) and I think this year they could make even greater progress because they’ll have a full offseason,” Turner said.

Said Smith: “Time will tell. We think the offseason will strengthen that class. There’s a few more years to go before the evaluation is complete, but we like where that class is headed and what direction they’re going right now.”
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