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Tuesday, April 24, 2007 | Their names are Nate Kaeding, Nick Hardwick, Shaun Phillips, Michael Turner and Shane Olivea.
Three years ago, they sat far removed from the fanfare of the NFL’s draft day green room in New York. They simply picked up the phone at home when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith called and told them they were on their way to San Diego as middle- or late-round draft picks.
Each year the NFL invites marquee draft prospects to New York to wait in the green room until their names are called and they can be paraded up on stage. They get the attention and the money.
But if you really want to see the value of an NFL team’s two-day draft on Saturday and Sunday, look at the players they take in rounds three through seven. It’s particularly true for a rebuilding team.
In 2004, the Chargers drafted eight players that are still with the team in roles ranging from Pro Bowler to valuable backup. In addition to quarterback Philip Rivers in the first round and defensive end Igor Olshansky in the second round, six more players came from rounds three through seven.
The six choices turned out to be Iowa kicker Nate Keading, a third-round pick; Purdue center Nick Hardwick, third; Purdue outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, fourth; Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner, fifth; Ohio State offensive tackle Shane Olivea, seventh; and Nebraska defensive lineman Ryon Bingham, seventh.
Rivers, Kaeding and Hardwick earned Pro Bowl bids their third season. Olshansky, Kaeding, Hardwick and Olivea have been starters all three years.
Phillips emerged as a starter his third year, Turner could be a starter for many other NFL teams and Bingham contributed valuable minutes as a backup when the Chargers suffered injuries last year in their defensive line.
The Chargers’ recent draft success, Smith and his scouts believe, is their ability to work together in the later rounds. The scouts do the legwork and Smith and assistant general manager Buddy Nix have their own eye for talent to make the final choices.
“I know a lot of people have asked us if we have some magical touch or something,” Smith said. “I don’t think we do. We work hard like everyone else. We approach it very seriously. We have a plan and we execute it very well. We’re all looking at the same pool of players each and every year. I just think that we’ve got a lot of good guys, a lot of experienced people. We work well together and make the right selections.”
The Chargers don’t draft until the 30th pick of the first round — barring a trade that would change the order — but don’t overlook the players they take in later rounds. Maybe that’s where they’ll get the wide receiver — this year’s draft is deep in wide receivers — that can add to the passing game.
The Chargers have eight picks in all, including one in the second (62), two in the third (93 and 96), one in the fourth (129), two in the fifth (167 and 172) and one in the seventh (240).
So the draft prospects you see in the green room Saturday morning aren’t necessarily the building-block players that put a team over the top as a playoff or Super Bowl contender.
Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was one of those green room players when the Bolts took him with the fifth pick of the 2001 draft. And because LT turned out to be the impact player, the Chargers are one of the teams that can win a Super Bowl in 2007.
But the Chargers didn’t become a winning team until they started hitting it big in rounds three through seven in 2004.
In LT’s first three seasons, the Chargers had one .500 season (8-8 in 2002) and no playoff appearances.
In LT’s three seasons since the 2004 building blocks draft, the Chargers have had three straight winning seasons and two playoff appearances in 2004 and 2006.
If the Chargers ever win a Super Bowl, Tomlinson will be a major reason. But he will be only one reason.