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A.J. Smith talks draft

Posted Apr 20, 2010

A.J. Smith is gearing up for his eighth NFL Draft as Chargers General Manager. He took some time amid pre-draft meetings to share his insight and approach to one of the most anticipated events of the year. Check out his responses:

Q: How would you describe your overall draft philosophy?

A.J.: “Our philosophy is to get the best football players you can and line them up three-deep behind the players that you already have. We’re always looking to upgrade on a year-to-year basis. I believe in the Draft. It’s the lifeblood of our organization as far as building a championship team. There are other ways we can fill in players around that. It’s very important to get good football players.”

Q: Explain how you approach the draft each year, beginning with your staff’s preparation? Take us through the final week leading up to draft day.

A.J.: “It really begins in May when we go to scouting combines in Florida. The National Scouting Combine and the BLESTO Scouting Combine come up with the senior prospects, in their opinion. That’s just an indicator. It’s a head start on the process. After that, in the summer during training camp, our directors (Director of Player Personnel Jimmy Raye and Director of College Scouting John Spanos) will coordinate with our area scouts and we’ll blanket the country. We divide up how we are going to cover it in the fall when we go out in August, all the way through (the season), watching these senior prospects. We track their entire senior year. Then we take it all the way through the All-Star games, Senior Bowl, the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, the pro testing days, and then it comes right down into meetings here for the draft where we get together for two weeks and break all that down.

“Evaluating senior prospects is a whole year’s worth of effort and it leads up to right now. I’m leaving out underclassmen that declare much later. When they declare, we do our checks at that time. We’re aware of the names because we’ve seen them play. You evaluate more than 2,000 players and literally whittle that down to seven young men, more or less, depending on wheeling and dealings on draft day. But right now, as it stands, it’s seven (draft selections).

“It’s pretty remarkable when you think of the process for the kids that get drafted. It’s quite an honor. We know the percentage of all the college kids who play football that want this to happen, and only a small number actually have that dream. And of course, a larger number are free agents. But it boils down to finding really good football players.”

Q: When you grade a player, which of these qualities are most important to you: athletic ability or on-field production and why?

A.J.: “It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s what we call ‘measurables.’ You always hear about height, weight and speed for certain positions. If you’re a linebacker, hypothetically speaking, you have to be 6-4, 250 pounds, run a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and have a 40-inch vertical jump. You typically hear all these ‘measurables’ come out of the NFL Combine.

“What we’re looking for, bottom line, is a football player. How does he play the game? How productive is he? How consistent is he? Was he a one-year guy? Did he play at a high level in college for two or three years? How about his high school; which we do a little checking, not evaluation. How were they in high school as players before they got to college? You have a huge body of work to evaluate. The odds are that they’re probably going to continue that at the NFL level if they have that work habit and if they’re grounded, solid human beings with great character and want to be pro football players. Those are intangibles. We lean pretty heavily on that because when players have those qualities and they get an opportunity to be a pro – in this case, a Charger, they are going to take full advantage of that and be the best pro they can be. That’s the makeup of our team (now), and I think that’s part of the reason why we’ve had some success here in San Diego.”

Q: You’re known to prefer great football players over great athletes. Tell us why that is.

A.J.: “It’s a philosophy I’ve had for a long time; since I was in the USFL with George Allen. Marv Levy, Bill Polian, John Butler and others engrained that in me. I guess it’s the different stops I’ve been along the way. I believe it. I believe it even more now because we’ve incorporated that philosophy since I was hired by Dean Spanos in 2003, and we are moving in the right direction. We have a good football team. I am reinforced more not to abandon that philosophy. I believe it in as much now as I did years ago.”

Q: Can you explain how you and your staff evaluate players in the draft? Can you use last year’s top selection, linebacker Larry English, as an example and describe some of the criteria and language used to evaluate him?

A.J.: “We use a lot of clichés in our business. We almost speak another language in scouting. All scouts and coaches know it’s a jargon that we use. With Larry English, for example, obviously he has the measurables—the height, weight and speed that are good for the position. But what stood out to us about him was that he has pass-rush ability. What is that? That’s a great first step. That’s great explosion. He has the ability to bend the corner and get in on a pass rush, which is an athletic move and an athletic gift. Those are some of the qualities we saw in him. Also he has a relentless pursuit. He will not give up from sideline to sideline. He doesn’t coast if he doesn’t have an angle on a quarterback or a running back. It’s full-blown pursuit. How does he tackle? Is he technically sound? Does his head go down into the ground or is his head up when tackling? Is he disciplined in tackling? We think all of these things are in place for Larry, which is why we highly coveted him and went after him in the first round. Now his future is unfolding. He’s only had one year in San Diego. We expect great things from him. To top it all off for him, he has great desire to be the best. He has a great work ethic; a year-round work ethic. When you have that, it’s going to draw attention. What we’ve seen in the year that he has been here is exactly that. He wants to be very good and he works on it year-round. He works here and he takes care of his body. That’s another thing; are they going to take care of their body through strength and conditioning? He does all those things. So we are very pleased.”

Q: Of all of the criteria you have to evaluate about each player, how important is a player’s persona and character off the field?

A.J.: “It’s very important. They have to have great character. Not only is it important to get very good football players, but very productive players. They have to have great work ethic, love the game and be good people. It’s a combination that comes together. We tend to really stick with that for the most part. I think we do a good job of it. If you do all the right things to remain a Charger, we’re going to hang with you. And if not, good luck to you.”

Q: How do you measure the success of a draft?

A.J: “You have to wait a few years until you can actually see it unfold. You may have an impactful player in his first year. You may have a player make an impact in the middle of his contract or the last year of the contract. It’s okay if you don’t have an immediate impact. Maybe you’re behind somebody on the depth chart. Maybe it comes in year two or three. Bottom line, you can’t really evaluate the players until the end of their rookie contract. What has he done during that rookie contract to make an impact before he gets a second contract; hopefully with your team rather than moving on to another.

“I know that people would like players to make an immediate impact. Sometimes that’s not the case. Expectations are higher with first and second-round players than they are with those selected toward the back-end of the draft, which is traditionally your sixth or seventh rounders. Some early choices don’t do much and some late-round choices and free agents have Pro Bowl careers. How does that happen? It happens because of the attributes we try to stick to with our football team. Give a guy an opportunity, and then let his work habits, character, desire and competiveness overtake others.

“We’ve had a lot of success here and I hope we continue with that in our mid-round, late-round and free agents. It’s all on (the players) and all the credit should go to them when they make a name for themselves. They did it in high school. They did it in college, which is why we were attracted to their work ethic. And we gave them an opportunity. It’s very satisfying to see someone come in here from the back end of the draft or as a free agent and do wonderful things. Yes, we want the impactful guys to be in the first, second and third rounds, and we’ve had some. We are patient. Would I be disappointed if somebody was drafted and went the entire five years and never had an impact? Sure. We strive to be a team with a high-percentage success rate and I think we’ve done that. If you have a high-percentage rate, it usually means you’re pretty successful.”

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received that has helped you in this business?

A.J: “Do the very best job that you can. Believe in your abilities. Have a plan. Have a philosophy and stick to it. Be aware of this fact: no matter what you do, there will be people who will think you are not very good and will not like you, and will think you are not very successful. And no matter what you do, there will be people who will think you are doing a good job, you’re heading in the right direction, just keep going and one day you’ll make it. That has been so true each and every year that I’ve been on the job. I spend all of my time and energy trying to work with good people to get that done. Nothing will ever change. Some will disagree and it’s their right to say whatever they want, but I certainly don’t have to engage them.”

Q: How do you measure your performance as a general manager?

A.J.: “I leave that for others. Success to me is winning a world championship. That’s all I think about. That’s all I care about. Only one team does that per year. We have not achieved that. So as far as I’m concerned we’re just building a championship-level team on a yearly basis, but we’re not successful until we hoist the trophy. I’d like us to have a playoff-caliber team every year. I’d like for us to always be in postseason play and have a chance to win a championship. I take pride in the fact that we’ve been doing that and have had many opportunities in the postseason. We’ve won many Western Division championships, which is a goal of ours because it means we’re in the playoffs, which is the sole purpose. We’re going to keep banging away and hopefully we’ll have a successful 2010. I hope at the end of 2010, the Chargers are in postseason again. The chase for the championship will begin again.”

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