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Analyst: defense a draft priority for Bolts

Posted Apr 19, 2012

SAN DIEGO – Charley Casserly was general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans during a long NFL career.

Among players that Casserly drafted: Brian Mitchell, Champ Bailey, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams.

Now an NFL Network analyst, Casserly chimed in this week about the Chargers’ free agent signings, San Diego’s needs in the upcoming draft and how Peyton Manning’s presence in Denver affects the AFC West.

The Chargers have acquired or re-signed 20 players since March, adding several receivers and offensive linemen as well as a touted outside linebacker. What stands out to you?

I think two things stuck out.

One, the wide receiver position. Obviously Vincent Jackson left, but you replaced him with Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal. I think Eddie Royal in the slot can be a dynamic player for you, and also, that takes pressure off of Antonio Gates at tight end. And Meachem is a guy that’s got really good speed and can threaten deep, so I think you needed to get that guy in there.

The other thing is overall depth and improvement of the football team. Getting Jared Gaither back, who came in at the end of last year and really helped things out, I think that was important. Le’Ron McClain comes in and gives you a presence as an inside runner. Whitehurst improves depth at quarterback.

And Jarret Johnson on the defense. One of the things I think the team wanted to improve was their front-seven play as far as getting stronger against the run, and that’s what Johnson gives you. He’s a physical guy who plays the run really well.

Speaking of Meachem, he caught between 40 and 45 passes the last three years in New Orleans. Some speculate that total might go up if he starts in San Diego as projected. Could you see that?

I can see his numbers going up. It just depends on how they want to feature him. Numbers a lot of times are based on how a player is featured. But I think the thing he does is give you the speed and the big plays. He may not have huge catch numbers, but it’s his yardage per catch that’s going to be the most telling stat, and that helps the entire offense.

There are a number of guesses as to why General Manager A.J. Smith signed more free agents than is typical for him: good free agent class? Roster needs? Urgency to return to the playoffs? What’s your take?

I don’t know if I can speculate on all the different reasons why they signed as many players as they did. But it was a good class. That’s No. 1. They had enough money to sign the players, which was an advantage. They got good deals. What they did makes sense. Gaither is a re-sign. Whitehurst is in a sense a re-sign replacing Billy Volek. They lost Vincent Jackson and they had to replace him. So you did with Robert Meachem, but you added Eddie Royal.

So really, Royal is an extra guy there. Jarret Johnson is an extra guy. Mike Tolbert and McClain are two different players, but if we just say it’s a swap in the running back overall position, really, Johnson and Eddie Royal are the two guys that are added, and both of them make sense and are good signings. Whether it’s the quality of the free agent class, having the money to do it, getting good deals on the players, I think what they did makes sense, and that’s the most important thing.

What is the biggest area of need on the Chargers’ current roster, and what positions do you think San Diego will consider taking in the first round or two?

I think the area to me is mainly defense. Pass rush, safety and speed at corner. Those are the things that I think in a perfect world would be good for them to upgrade.

I think in the first round it would be hard to target a safety because Mark Barron of Alabama would be the only safety that would have a grade rated high enough to take at 18.

The cornerback position is interesting because you have Morris Claiborne of LSU who is a top-five pick, we’ll say, and then Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina who’s got pretty good numbers. Probably a little bit raw in some areas, but a guy who should be in the middle of the first round. And then you’ve got Janoris Jenkins of Northern Alabama, who can cover better than maybe all these guys, but he was dismissed from Florida, so how do you settle that situation? Dre Kirkpatrick from Alabama is a really good player, but he’s been banged up some, so I don’t know where that’s going to fit in.

After that first corner there are a lot of questions. And the pass-rush group, I think you have the same issue. It’s going to depend on who you talk to as to the guys that they really like. I think that if I was looking at a position that they might take in the first round, it probably would be some form of a pass rusher.

General Manager A.J. Smith has shown a willingness to make draft trades. Based on who may be available at No. 18, do you think it might make sense to trade up or down?

I’m not sure this is the draft to trade up for a pass-rusher because there are a lot of guys that people are going to see differently. It’s going to be ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ with some players.

There are teams that are going to like Melvin Ingram of South Carolina. Other teams are going to say he’s 6-foot-1, he’s got short arms, I don’t see it. Courtney Upshaw, I think there are some teams that are going to like him. Other teams are going to say, ‘You know, he’s a good college football player with no one single physical trait to make him successful in the NFL.’ There’s Andre Branch at Clemson. He’s got size, he’s got speed, but he’s an inconsistent production guy. There are teams that are going to like him in the first round.

You’ve got other players like Whitney Mercilus from Illinois who had a lot of numbers in college, but does he have the outside burst that you want? He has the physical characteristics of size and speed.

I don’t want to say this guy’s a sleeper, but you’ve got Shea McClellin from Boise State who I projected to go at the end of the first round with the Green Bay Packers. He’s got a high motor. He’s got quickness. He’s got speed. Athletic guy. But he’s had a number of concussions. Where do you fit that into it?

So the picture I’m painting is, many teams are going to look at this thing a little bit differently. You might have a number of these guys go, and every team takes the one they want.

The team likes Tyronne Green at left guard in the wake of Kris Dielman’s retirement, but do you foresee the Chargers considering an offensive lineman in the first round?

I think it’ll be defense in the first round. Now after that, I think they’ll go to best player available.

Given the Chargers’ current roster, and with all the coaching and quarterback changes in the AFC West the last year, how do you think the division stacks up heading into the draft?

I think it’s the most balanced division in football. I think any of these teams here can win it. Any of these teams could finish fourth. You may have a situation like last year. You had three teams at 8-8 and Kansas City, as you pointed out, had a lot of injuries and they won the division the year before. So I think injuries will play a big part of it and the team that’s the healthiest is probably going to win this thing. But this is a very balanced division. Any one of these teams could win it.

Chargers President Dean Spanos’ decision to retain Smith and Head Coach Norv Turner showed confidence in the two men and a philosophy of continuity. What are your thoughts on that decision and philosophy?

I know everyone was disappointed with the season, but the reality is they ended up with the same record as the Broncos and the Raiders. They were all 8-8, so any one of them with one game different could’ve won it.

I think any time you’re changing, you’ve got to understand, ‘What are we going to change to?’ And obviously Dean Spanos didn’t feel comfortable in answering that part of the question.

Both A.J. and Norv have won there. They’ve won division championships. They’ve been to the playoffs, so they’ve obviously proven that they can succeed together. So I understood why they did it.

I think Dean Spanos made the right decision. And I think that it looks like the franchise is re-energized and excited to come back. And I think Peyton Manning coming in the division gets everybody on their toes. So I think that’s going to bring out the best of all three other teams.

Manning signing with Denver has been a big story. What does it mean from a football standpoint? How certain or uncertain is it that his presence will help the Broncos defend their division title in the AFC West?

There is some uncertainty about his health. No one really knows that. He’s got a clean bill of health and I know they’re saying he’s throwing fine.

The biggest unknown to me there is what they’re going to look like on offense. We know what Indianapolis looked like. It was a team where Manning controlled the game at the line of scrimmage. He did a great job of putting the team in the right position and the right play. And he did a great job of reading the defense after the ball was snapped. But a lot of the success there was the precision passing game with the receivers being in the right spot.

Well, now it’s him getting Denver’s receivers to be in the right spot, and what offense are they going to run? After they lost the Super Bowl in New Orleans, he made a point, ‘We’ve got to run the ball better.’ He’s been crying for a running game. Well, the Broncos ran the ball better last year. So are they still going to be able to do that? Where is the emphasis going to be?

To me, they’re a team where I have no idea what this thing’s going to look like. It could be real good or it could be a rough start for them. Defensively, they’ve got to get the inside defensive tackle position to improve. They’ve got to play the run better. They’ve got age in their secondary.

Now Manning has played with a defense that wasn’t that good, but could rush the passer. They played ahead and that was to the advantage of the defense, because they had one thing really to do: rush the passer. So, is this offense going to be good enough to play ahead to make up for the weaknesses on defense?

This could be a real good team or this could be a team that’s right in there. The biggest unknown is how good that offense is going to be, what system are they going to run, and the coordination between Manning and the receivers. At what point do they look like they’re in sync?

Follow NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly on Twitter: @CharleyCasserly

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