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First Round, With a Bullet

Merriman's Stock Has Skyrocketed With Increase in Size, Athleticism

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page D01

All along, Shawne Merriman expected this weekend's NFL draft to be rewarding, or else he wouldn't have decided to skip his senior season at the University of Maryland. But he didn't quite expect this.

The past few months have been a whirlwind for Merriman, 6 feet 4, who has shot up the draft boards of many teams since he decided to leave Maryland because he thought he would be a late first-round pick. He has bulked up to around 275 pounds and has dazzled talent evaluators with his speed and athleticism. He has become the most prominent among a group of players who intrigue scouts and coaches by being both big enough to play defensive end and fast enough to play linebacker.

Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman has shot up the draft boards of many teams since bulking up to around 275 pounds and dazzling talent evaluators with his speed and athleticism. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)

Many draft observers expect Merriman to be among the first 15 players selected Saturday, and some in his camp don't expect him to fall below the 11th overall choice. "You don't really know," Merriman said as he sat in the lobby of a College Park apartment building. "But I think I'll go pretty early, I can say that."

He has an engaging, star-quality personality, and he soon could have the draft status and contract to match. The recent fascination with Merriman doesn't surprise one of his former Maryland teammates, safety Chris Kelley.

"His ability has gone through the roof," Kelley said. "He's probably one of the top five, top 10 players in the draft. This past season, his stock went really, really high. . . . Whatever team he goes to, they're going to be lucky. When he came in as a freshman, he didn't have the weight. He was only about 230, 245 [pounds]. But he could run like a deer and jump like a kangaroo. It was just a matter of him putting on weight. He worked his butt off in the weight room and got big. Once he did that, the sky was the limit for him. He's just an unbelievable athlete."

Merriman, who turns 21 next month, said he thinks his draft stock began to rise when the decision-makers for clubs found out how much he really weighs. He was listed at 245 pounds last season -- small by NFL standards in an era in which offensive linemen top 300 pounds -- but he said he played at 263, then added about a dozen pounds of muscle during his offseason training regimen.

The added bulk slowed Merriman's time in the 40-yard dash from just under 4.5 seconds early in the offseason, he says, to the 4.61 he posted (albeit wind-aided) in his campus workout last month. He had a vertical jump of 38 1/2 inches, down from 41 1/2 two years ago. Still, those were eye-catching feats.

"They see me in person, and they say, 'Oh, this dude was doing that at this size?' " Merriman said. "They were shocked. That's when the [draft] spots jumped and jumped and jumped. . . . It's like, 'This guy is 275 pounds, and he's running flat 4.6s. This guy is fast, and jumping 40 1/2 inch vertical.' They're like, 'Hold on, this is some freaky kind of stuff going on here.' It went from middle first [round] to, 'All right, now this guy is a possible top 10 pick for us.' I was working out as a linebacker and a defensive end, so I was getting double work. They said, 'Man, this guy is doing linebacker drills, and he's doing defensive end drills. Where do you put him at?' A lot of coaches, the head coaches and GMs, said, 'Look, put this guy on the field and let him make something happen because that's what he does.' "

Draft lore is filled with players who became high first-round picks based in part on superb performances in pre-draft workouts. Some, such as Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, became stars. Others, such as Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Mike Mamula, were busts, and now serve as cautionary tales cited by coaches and general managers who like to deride the workouts as a meaningless, scaled-down version of the Olympic trials that don't show whether participants can play football.

Merriman's stock is further boosted by his versatility. The 3-4 defensive alignment is beginning to gain popularity again in the NFL, and Merriman and other college defensive ends such as David Pollack of Georgia and Demarcus Ware of Troy University have had their prospects improved in that they could play outside linebacker on a 3-4 defense or end in a traditional 4-3 setup.

"You have a lot of those guys who are a linebacker for us and a defensive end for a 4-3 team," Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said at the scouting combine in late February in Indianapolis. "Only two colleges in the country play a 3-4, Virginia and Maryland. All those outside linebackers are projections."

Kelley said Merriman reminds him of New England Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. The Patriots have won three of four Super Bowls using the adaptable skills of players like McGinest and fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel.

"Making that projection, looking at a guy who's been a down lineman in college and then looking at him as a linebacker, is a really tough thing to do," Patriots front office chief Scott Pioli said. "There's probably been league-wide -- and we've been involved in some of those ourselves -- more that don't work out than do work out. There are a number of guys this year, with more teams becoming 3-4 teams, they're not only being projected as outside linebackers, but I'm hearing people talk about some of these guys as inside linebackers."

Merriman said he doesn't really care which position he plays as long as he is given opportunities to make the sort of crunching hits that led him to nickname himself "Lights Out." Maryland's coaches objected at first, Merriman says, recalling a game during his freshman season in which Terrapins Coach Ralph Friedgen yanked the exuberant young player from a game because he thought Merriman would get a penalty for celebrating a jarring tackle on a Georgia Tech player with his lights-out ritual -- pretending to flick a switch on his forearm.

It wasn't the first time he performed the celebration. "But," Merriman said, "that was the first time I got caught."

He wasn't penalized, and Merriman says even the Maryland coaches came around. "After a while all the coaches started calling me 'Lights Out,' " he said. "At first, they thought it was a joke. But after a while it wasn't a joke anymore because I was out there putting people's lights out."

As a youth growing up in Prince George's County, Merriman said, he liked basketball, but his boys' club coaches saw his aggressiveness and quickly got him on a football field. He always could hit, even as a 175-pound sophomore at Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro, he said, remembering a game in which he sent four opponents to the sideline. "After that point," he said, "it was like, 'This guy needs a permission slip to play.' "

He committed to Maryland without visiting any other schools and became a regular in the weight room. The efforts paid off last season, when he had 8 1/2 sacks and 17 tackles for losses. Now the big stage awaits.

"It's hard to find a lot of guys who can do what I do at my size," he said. "It's hard to find a lot of guys who can do what I do, period."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company