History won't impact Chargers' decision


In 1998, the Chargers didn't have a chance to draft a Manning. The Colts figured out by the scouting combine in February that Mannings come along only so often and decided to make Peyton the first pick in the draft.

By his second year, Peyton Manning was a Pro Bowler, and the Colts were a 13-win playoff team and an annual playoff contender. In March, the Colts invested a $34.5 million signing bonus in a $98.2 million contract as the down payment in what the franchise hopes will be a new stadium that will keep them in Indianapolis.

And then there's the Chargers, the team that didn't get Manning. In 1998, they traded up from the third spot in the draft, and ended up with Ryan Leaf, one of the worst busts in draft history. Peyton Manning was a savior. Leaf was a franchise killer. He was 4-14 as a starter and threw 33 interceptions compared to 13 touchdown passes. Leaf set the franchise back for years with the cap consequences of his exodus after three years. The Chargers are on their third head coach since 1998 and their record has been 31-65 over that time. The Leaf experience made them trade the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft (which was Michael Vick) to Atlanta. And their bid for a new stadium remains at a stalemate.

On Saturday, the Chargers can end the Manning curse by drafting Eli Manning. Or they can trade to add bodies to one of the league's thinnest rosters. Trade Manning or keep him? The debate lingers on.

"There is more risk not to draft Eli Manning first than there is to draft him first,'' Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil said earlier this offseason.

Chargers general manager A.J Smith accepted the responsibility of this pressure cooker. Only two teams have been in contact with the Chargers about trading up for the first choice, but nothing is even close to being done. The Giants want Manning. The Redskins don't have the ammunition to move up.

Smith cleared up one misconception. The lingering Leaf cloud no longer plays into the Chargers draft room. Owner Dean Spanos may have said during the season the team wouldn't take a quarterback first, but those sentiments are outdated and meaningless.

"I could care less about the Ryan Leaf decision,'' Smith said. "I've heard it so many times that we can't take a quarterback because of what happened in the past. Whether we decide to take a quarterback or not has nothing to do with Ryan Leaf. I didn't take this job with the idea that we can't do something that might help the team.''

Over the weekend and into the week, Smith settled into long daily meetings on defensive players that will conclude on Wednesday. He'll surface Wednesday and start calling teams about trades and talking to agents who represent players at the top of the draft -- Manning, Robert Gallery, Larry Fitzgerald and maybe Sean Taylor and Ben Roethlisberger.

Ideally, Smith would love to find a way to trade down and draft Philip Rivers at quarterback and also land Gallery, but that's impossible. In fact, every combination of scenarios doesn't net them solutions to their problems.

Why? The Chargers want another young quarterback. Drew Brees, the quarterback whom the Chargers felt they could get in the second round of the 2001 draft, is no longer the quarterback of the Chargers future. He's still on the roster and if a young quarterback isn't ready for the season opener, Brees may end up starting, but his days are numbered.

"Drew is just here, and we'll just see what happens,'' Smith said. "All of his failing didn't have to do with just him. He can't be totally blamed for the lack of production at wide receiver or that the offensive line was depleted by injuries.''

Brees may not be totally to blame for last year's poor offensive showing, but he's taking the fall. The Chargers traded away Vick because they thought they could revamp the offense in a trade with the Falcons. The key was getting halfback Ladainian Tomlinson, Brees, wide receiver Tim Dwight, a third-rounder in 2001 and a second-rounder in 2002.

It didn't work. The third-rounder turned out to be undersized cornerback Tay Cody, who was cut before the start of last season. The 2002 second-round pick was wide receiver Reche Caldwell, who was plagued by dropped passes last season and has only 30 catches in two years. Dwight is an offensive catalyst, but he's essentially a No. 3 receiver.

Trade away the chance to draft Manning? It could be a repeat of the previous disaster if the quarterback that the Chargers end up with doesn't work out. While Tomlinson probably exceeded the Chargers' expectations, his individual success is meaningless if the rest of the offense fails. Great back play coupled with below average quarterback play means losing seasons.

Tomlinson rushed for 4,564 yards in three seasons. But the Chargers' record is 17-31.

Let's say the Chargers trade for the fourth pick from the Giants and draft Ben Roethlisberger or Rivers. The Giants might be willing to give them a second-round choice and maybe they would throw in another player, like wide receiver Ike Hilliard.

But the Chargers might not resolve their offensive problems with their draft gains in the second round. The Chargers would then have the 34th and 35th picks, and their primary needs would be offensive line and wide receiver. Eight of their 11 offensive linemen from a year ago are gone.

The Chargers would come up with a good receiver, possibly Michael Jenkins of Ohio State or Devery Henderson of LSU. But where the trade scenario doesn't work is that the offensive linemen possibly available at the top of the second round are considered more projects than immediate starters. Kelly Butler of Purdue, Jacob Rogers of USC and Max Starks of Florida may not be ready to start right away.

Do you trade away a Manning for a different quarterback and a tackle who might not be able to help you until 2005? Unlikely.

At the owners meeting, Schottenheimer was asked about the more valuable position, left tackle or quarterback.

"For me personally -- I'm not speaking for the organization -- if you have what you consider a franchise player at both positions -- and I'm not suggesting we feel that way -- I think you've got to take the quarterback. He touches the ball every play."

What the Chargers are weighing is whether to move down and take Rivers or Roethlisberger and give up what they didn't have in 1998 -- the chance to draft a Manning.

The risks probably outweigh the rewards.

Expect the Chargers to take Manning regardless if he has a contract agreement by draft day or not.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.