Nearly a month has passed since a difficult 2015 season came to an end, and the Chargers have already begun their push toward a bounce back in 2016.
The team has already made a number of coaching staff changes that Head Coach Mike McCoy described as rejuvenating. Many critical junctures await each team in the months ahead, including free agency and the offseason program.
However, the crown jewel of the offseason is undeniably the NFL Draft, in which the Chargers hold the third overall selection. Not only that, but the Bolts will have a high selection in every round. As President of Football Operations John Spanos explains, it is a monumental draft for the Bolts.
"You never want to have a really high first round pick as that usually means you had a difficult season, but as you get closer to the draft, the excitement of having that third pick and a high pick in each round will really start to kick in as you get closer. It is clearly an advantage, and one that we need to use and come out with a productive draft."
While countless hours of draft preparation lay ahead, this weekend's Senior Bowl represents a pivotal point in that process as all 32 teams will descend upon Mobile, Alabama to evaluate some of the biggest names in the game. While it is a critical piece to the puzzle that some consider the unofficial kickoff to draft season, Spanos described how the team's preparations date back to last summer.
"It's obviously very important. I don't know if it is the kickoff to the draft though because our process began last August, and it's a nonstop process straight through. Obviously there have been a few all-star games already, but this game draws top senior players. So it's the best all-star game in terms of talent. It is also very beneficial because you have NFL staffs coaching it, and is one of the few times in our post season evaluation where we are evaluating prospects in pads and helmets. That is very important."
The Bolts have unearthed top talent over the years at the Senior Bowl, most notably LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001 and Philip Rivers in 2004. The latter was especially memorable as the Chargers served as coaches and eventually drafted four Pro Bowl players from that game.
"That was probably the most successful Senior Bowl trip ever when you look at the number of players we drafted from that Senior Bowl class," Spanos said. "That includes Philip, who our coaches had and got an inside look. When you look at the game as a whole, Nick Hardwick, Shaun Phillips and Nate Kaeding all played that year, so it was a pretty historic class."
In recent years, the Bolts have used their second round pick to select a linebacker they evaluated at the game. In 2014 the team got an up-close look at Jerry Attaochu, while last year they came away enamored with Denzel Perryman.
"Denzel didn't make it to the game because he got dinged up in a practice, but we saw in practice a lot of what we saw here. He had a lot of energy, and we had an up close look at him and what he is like in that environment as a player."
Meanwhile, Attaochu believes his approach in 2014 ultimately landed him in navy and gold. Along with studying prospects on the field, teams get to hold interviews in formal and informal settings, which are also of the utmost importance. The outside linebacker came to the Senior Bowl particularly determined to impress the Chargers, and went out of his way to make sure they knew the passion he had for the team.
"The Senior Bowl has informal interviews, and you basically have teams you can go up to and talk with those scouts," Attaochu said after his rookie season. "I did approach the Chargers, and I went up there with a job interview mindset. Being (at the Senior Bowl) was more than on the field. Seeing the Chargers scout, I walked up to him at a table when everyone else was starting to leave. I was determined to get this job. That was my mindset going into it. At the end of it all, I went up to the team I wanted to meet with, walked up and inquired a little bit. The opportunity was there, and it was informal. It was what I did, and I saw it as an opportunity. A lot of guys are tired at night and go back to their room at the end, but I was determined to stick it out. I came to Mobile, Alabama with a goal in mind, so that was my mindset. It was determination to get something I wanted."
In addition to evaluating the talent on the field, the Senior Bowl marks the first time the new coaching staff will operate as one. From returning Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to new position coaches such as Linebackers Coach Bob Babich, Offensive Line Coach Jeff Davidson and others, Spanos expressed excitement for watching the staff work together in this environment.
"This is certainly the first time we'll all be together as a staff, and the first of many times we will be throughout the year. I'm really looking forward to getting to know a lot of these coaches. It's already been a productive month. We've had good, in-depth meetings to wrap up last year, and we've come up with a really good plan for this year. There has been a lot on our plate the last few weeks, and things will certainly continue to ramp up. Sometimes time gives you perspective, but I believe what I said at the end of the season holds true; we have as many reasons to be excited as a 4-12 team can possibly have. You look at the core group we have, and we have some key pieces in place. Going forward this year, there are a lot of reasons to be excited to be able to add to those pieces."
One of those new pieces could very well be participating in this year's Senior Bowl.
"This all-star game is really just one piece to the puzzle. What guys have done their whole senior year as a body of work will always trump just one week alongside with players they've never played with. But what's great is often times, especially if there is someone who comes from a smaller school, now he's getting to play with top level talent and getting a chance to prove himself. So it is beneficial in a lot of ways, and that certainly is one. It is a week we are really looking forward to."