In our last issue, we reviewed the Chargers’ draft of 1975 as an example of the type of draft that is needed for the quickest return to the top of the AFC West during the Philip Rivers era.
This story will look back to the 2004 draft which landed Rivers and a number of impact players who were key components to a team that won four consecutive division titles from 2006-2009.
Just three years prior in 2001, the Chargers traded the top pick to the Atlanta Falcons for their first (No. 5) and third-round picks in ’01; WR/KR Tim Dwight and the Falcons’ second-round pick in ’02. This trade enabled the Chargers to select future Hall of Fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson, who became the catalyst behind the teams’ successful playoff years beginning in ’06.
Finishing fourth in the AFC West with a 4-12 record in 2003, the Chargers again owned the number one overall pick in the 2004. Unlike 2001, where they traded out of the top spot, then General Manager A.J. Smith selected Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning before making one the greatest trades in franchise history.
Against Manning’s wishes — he publicly stated he didn’t want to play for the Chargers — Smith drafted the disgruntled quarterback and traded him an hour later to the NY Giants for their first-round pick, quarterback Philip Rivers (their fifth-overall pick), the Giants’ third-round choice in ’04 and first and fifth-round choices in ’05.
In addition to acquiring the quarterback he coveted, Smith selected three solid starters in the draft, landed a much-needed veteran offensive tackle and used the first-round pick from the Giants in ’05 to select a rookie Phenom who transformed the strength of the defense.
Here’s a look at the key players involved in the ’04 draft and the impact each player had on the success of the franchise. Players with an asterisk (*) were players part of then ’04 trade who became Pro Bowlers; players with two asterisks (**) were draft choices who became Pro Bowl selections.
Round 1 — Philip Rivers*, QB, North Carolina St. (5). Originally drafted by the Giants fifth overall, Rivers is the Chargers’ all-time leader in career completion percentage (64.8); passer rating (95.5) and touchdowns thrown (281). Entering his 13th season, Rivers’ 41,447 passing yards ranks second in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Dan Fouts’ 43,040 (TFD). Named First-Team All-NFL in ’08 and Second-Team All-NFL in ’13 (PFF), Rivers is a five-time Pro Bowler, seven-time team MVP and two-time team Offensive Player of the Year.
Round 3 — Nate Kaeding*, K, Iowa (65). A one-time All-NFL First Team selection (’09) and two-time Pro Bowler (’07, ’10), Kaeding earned All-Rookie honors in ’04 (PFWA, PFW). He finished his nine-year career in San Diego ranked 3rd in points scored (889); 2nd in field goals (180) and 3rd in field goal attempts (207).
Round 3 — Nick Hardwick**, C, Purdue (66). A fan-favorite since becoming a starter his rookie year, Hardwick anchored the offensive line that opened the holes for Tomlinson and protected Rivers during his 14 seasons with the Chargers. Selected to the Pro Bowl in 2007, Hardwick was voted by teammates as the Chargers Lineman of the Year three times (2011-2013) and shared the Most Inspirational Player award in 2013 (D.J. Fluker, Jarret Johnson).
Round 4 — Shaun Phillips**, LB, Purdue (98). Known as the other Shaun during his playing time with teammate Shawne Merriman, Phillips ranks second on the Chargers all-time sack list with 69.5. During his nine seasons in San Diego, Phillips started 108 of 136 games and selected to the Pro Bowl in 2011 following an 11 sack performance in 2010 (PFR).
2005 — Shawne Merriman*, LB, Maryland (12). As part of the Eli Manning trade in ’04, the Chargers selected Merriman 12th overall with the Giants’ first-round pick in ’05. Known as “Lights Out” for the ferocious hits he put on opponents, Merriman brought the kind of attitude and impact to a Chargers defense that had not been seen since the late, great Junior Seau was drafted in 2000. Merriman was selected both Rookie of the Year (TSN) and Defensive Rookie of the Year (AP, PFWA, PFW) after leading the team and all NFL rookies with 10 sacks. Voted Chargers’ Defensive Player of the Year by his teammates in 2006, Merriman was a three-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler during his six seasons with the Chargers.
The Endzone: The Chargers traded the Giants fifth-round pick in ’04 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for offensive tackle Roman Oben. During his four seasons with the Chargers, Oben started 24 of 30 games at left tackle and provided valuable experience while mentoring 2006 second-round draft pick Marcus McNeil (who earned All-Rookie honors from PFWA and PFW).
Three other players selected in ’04 also made key contributions to the team. Round 2 — Igor Olshansky, DT, Oregon (35). Olshansky started 70 of 75 games during his five seasons with the Chargers. Round 5 — Michael Turner, RB, Northern Illinois (154) Although he started just one game during his five-year career as a Charger, Turner provided both power and speed as Tomlinson’s backup. Round 7 — Shane Olivea, OG/OT, Ohio State (209). Olivea was an All-Rookie selection (PFWA, PFW) and started 57 of 60 games during his four seasons with the Chargers (PFR).
Player information and stats provided by the San Diego Chargers and the Chargers media guide unless otherwise noted. Acronyms — Associated Press (AP); Pro Football Focus (PFF); Pro Football Review (PFW); Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA); Pro Football Weekly (PFW); The Football Database (TFD) and The Sporting News (TSN).