The Chargers put some sacks appeal in their draft for the first time in the Don Coryell era by selecting defensive end Leslie O’Neal of Oklahoma State.
Not since they made Gary (Big Hands) Johnson a No. 1 pick in the 1975 National Football League draft had the Chargers expended a first-round choice on a defensive lineman.
O’Neal (who is proportioned along the lines of Fred Dean, another product of the ’75 draft) was the first of two San Diego picks in the first round of Tuesday’s National Football League draft.
With the other choice, the Chargers elected to shore up their protection for quarterback Dan Fouts, taking offensive tackle James FitzPatrick, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound specimen from USC. He is the 15th Trojan offensive lineman since 1968 to be taken in the first round.
FitzPatrick, weary of the pre-draft testing and doubts about where he’d wind up, was with agent Leigh Steinberg and a bottle of champagne when he was picked.
“Your whole life is on hold until the draft,” he said. “I really wanted San Diego, but I tried to put it out of my mind so I wouldn’t be disappointed.
“My agent was like a guru today. He had the cork popped on the Dom Perignon before the Chargers even called my name.”
Steinberg had done a little homework and was able to predict, several moves ahead of time, which team would take FitzPatrick.
The Chargers were not influenced by talk that FitzPatrick is too nice. And they were not frightened off by concern about O’Neal’s health.
The Chargers discounted the apparent fear of several teams about O’Neal’s right knee, which was injured but did not require surgery last year. O’Neal admitted he has skinny legs and “loose” knees that stretch instead of sustaining internal damage.
“We have absolutely no concern about his knees,” said assistant head coach Al Saunders. “He passed our physical fine. We wouldn’t have taken him where we did if had any question about him.”
O’Neal dismissed comparisons with Dean, saying that he expects to be used like Richard Dent of the Chicago Bears, lining up wide on one play and rushing from a stand-up position on the next down.
“It’s OK if they want to use me as a lineman and linebacker,” O’Neal said. “It should help our scheme if the offense doesn’t know if I’m rushing or dropping off to cover.”
The San Diego high command, starting with owner Alex Spanos, had entered the draft with two principal goals--to heighten the pass rush, and to safeguard the Charger passer.
“With John Elway (the Denver quarterback) maturing in our conference, we need a pass rusher who can help contain him,” chief scout Ron Nay said.
“And since we have to deal with the Raiders twice a year, we need size, too. We were a little too small last year, but not anymore.”
Underscoring these themes, the Chargers selected defensive end Terry Unrein (6-5, 285) of Colorado State and offensive lineman Jeff Walker (6-4, 280) of Memphis State with their two third-round picks.
If one consideration took precedence, it was the need to put heat on the opposing quarterback.
O’Neal was ranked with Alabama’s Jon Hand as one of two prized pass rushers in the draft. When the Indianapolis Colts took Hand with the fourth pick of the first round, the Chargers’ options were reduced.
Fearing that O’Neal would be gone before their turn arrived, the Chargers executed a trade with the Minnesota Vikings for the eighth pick of the first round.
The Chargers gave the Vikings one of their two first-round picks (No. 14 overall) plus a second-round selection. The Chargers also acquired a third-round selection from the Vikings.
The deal was made with time to spare--about three seconds, to be precise.
“It went real fast,” Spanos said. “It took about three minutes.”
That’s roughly how long a Charger fourth-quarter lead was safe last year.
O’Neal can get to a quarterback even faster. At 6-4, 245 pounds, he lacks bulk, but then so did Dean, with whose departure in 1981 the San Diego defense melted into nothingness.
Charger defensive line coach Gunther Cunningham hopes O’Neal will be the catalyst to boost the team’s sack total of 40 by a third to nearly 60.
“You look at the playoff teams, and they’re in the middle 50s or higher,” Cunningham said.
“The sack is such an impact play. The fans love to see it. And it’s a pretty good measuring stick of a defensive unit’s effectiveness.”
O’Neal had 31 sacks during his college career, including 14 as a junior.
“I think Mark Gastineau only had two sacks his first year,” Cunningham said. “Garin Veris of the Patriots had 10 sacks last year as a rookie, but that’s a very high first-year total.
“Getting him is like a Christmas present.”
But O’Neal may not be quite the Dean clone a Charger fan would think at first glance.
“He is not the second coming of Fred Dean,” Nay said.
Added Cunningham: “There aren’t too many guys like Fred. They only come along every 15 years or so.”
O’Neal isn’t much heavier than Dean, who weighs 240, but Cunningham isn’t eager to see him get heavier.
“His quickness is one of his best qualities, but we also like his intensity,” Nay said. “We saw him three or four times and never saw him take a step at half speed.”
FitzPatrick, who was picked in the first round to complement last year’s first-round choice, Jim Lachey, weighs 290 and could add another 15 or 20 without sacrificing quickness. “He’s a naturally big guy, not a weight lifter who’s all pumped up,” Nay said.
The Chargers have several concerns in the offensive line, including the age (40) and condition of Ed White, who is recuperating from knee surgery.
By selecting FitzPatrick and Walker, the Chargers also served notice that incumbents Sam Claphan and Dennis McKnight will have to battle for their jobs.
So will O’Neal, if he expects to gain a starting position at right defensive end, where Unrein also will line up in training camp.
“It’ll either make him better or me better, because I’ll certainly push him,” Unrein said. “I’m a good pass rusher; I play the run well and I’ve got a good head . . . I’m more of a mental player, but if it comes to a brawl, I’ll brawl.”
Unrein was the Chargers’ sleeper in the draft, according to Nay.
After an inconsistent career at Colorado State, he caught the eye of San Diego scouts at the Blue-Gray game last winter.
“We had him out early because we didn’t want to draw anyone’s attention to him,” Nay said.
The Chargers dispatched Cunningham to inspect him last week in Ft. Collins, Colo.
“It was cold and wet, but I was very impressed with his maneuverability,” Cunningham said. “He looked very quick and explosive.”
The needs of the San Diego linebacking corps were addressed in the fourth round with the selection of Texas’ Ty Allert and UCLA’s Tommy Taylor.
In the fifth round, the Chargers took linebacker Doug Landry of Louisiana Tech, cornerback Don Brown of Maryland and safety Matt Johnson of USC.
The Chargers’ concern about their defense wasn’t lost on O’Neal. “I know San Diego was No. 1 on offense and No. 28 on defense,” he said. “They haven’t won many games on defense lately.”
The Chargers--and O’Neal--hope that changes.