- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2011

SAN DIEGO (AP) - General manager A.J. Smith has some work to do in the NFL draft after his San Diego Chargers shockingly flamed out and missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.

The pressure is on for Smith to hit a home run, or at the very least, a booming triple. He’ll have five chances in the first 89 picks alone to find an impact player or two.

Overall, the Chargers have eight picks, starting with No. 18 in the first round.

The general consensus from outsiders is that the Chargers need to take a defensive end or outside linebacker. Smith won’t say which positions are atop his list, only that this draft will be wide open. Because of the labor unrest, the Chargers don’t know which free agents will be returning.

“If we can have a fantastic draft because we’ve got those five picks in the first three rounds, it’s almost like we’re teed up,” Smith said. “Hopefully the guys are the right guys, can stay healthy and contribute rather quickly. That’s what we’re mostly talking about.”

After winning four straight AFC West titles, the Chargers finished 9-7 last year and missed the playoffs. They sputtered from the start due to mind-boggling special teams blunders and turnovers. Not even Philip Rivers’ fine season was enough to save the Chargers, who were swept by the Oakland Raiders and eliminated from playoff contention by an unfathomable loss at Cincinnati on the second-to-last Sunday.

After reaching the AFC championship game following the 2007 season, Norv Turner’s first as head coach, the Bolts have regressed. They’ve won only one playoff game in three seasons.

“We need to get to the playoffs all the time,” Smith said. “We need to win the division as many times as possible. If we don’t win the division, we better have our numbers high enough so we can be a wild card, and then you have an opportunity. We have not been able to do much with our opportunities and it’s very frustrating. Last year was completely frustrating. Not only to not go to the tournament, we’re not even first in our division.

“We have a lot of work to do,” the GM said. “Hopefully we’ll have an impactful year with a lot of healthy players, and new players. Going back to the situation with five picks, we’ll tee it up and get back at this thing and hopefully bounce back and get into the playoffs.”

Smith’s past three drafts have provided only four starters: cornerback Antoine Cason, outside linebacker Larry English, guard Louis Vasquez and running back Ryan Mathews.

Most observers feel the Chargers need a pass rusher because English hasn’t lived up to his billing as the team’s first-round pick in 2009.

“We’ve had some guys struggle with some injuries,” Smith said. “Hopefully they’ll get healthy and contribute. If you’re not healthy, it’s going to make it hard to help yourself with the team. Larry has had some injuries and some surgeries and some struggles.”

Possible picks include Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, or Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt or Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, if they’re still available.

“I’d like to hit a home run with every draft,” said Smith, who did come up huge in 2004 and ‘05. “In reality, you don’t hit a home run in every draft. But I’m excited about the five picks.”

The Chargers had the NFL’s No. 1 defense last year, holding teams to 271.6 yards per game, but that’s a largely empty stat, especially with all the short fields they gave opponents. The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed 5 more yards per game, but allowed 90 fewer points than the Chargers and made it to the Super Bowl.

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