The distinction between outside linebackers and defensive ends has been blurred as this weekend's NFL draft approaches, and few observers are talking much about those college linebackers who don't fall into that "in-between" category. But one player at the position who has the league's talent evaluators excited is Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, who is likely to be among the first few defensive players selected Saturday.
Johnson weighed in at 242 pounds at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February, probably making him too small to play defensive end with any regularity in the NFL. Scouts view him strictly as an outside linebacker. But he is a defensive playmaker who had nine interceptions and caused 10 fumbles in his three seasons as a full-time starter at Texas. Johnson set an NCAA record last season by forcing nine fumbles.
He has come a long way since his mother had to force him to attend pee-wee football practices as a kid in Waco, Tex.
"The coach was kind of mean to me when I was little," Johnson said at the combine. "I wasn't used to that. Mom kept dragging me out of the car every practice. I didn't want to go. But it paid off."
His older brother, Dwight, and his cousin, Bert Emanuel, played in the NFL, but Johnson was in no rush to arrive in the league. He passed up the draft last year following his junior season, and he says he is glad that he did. He became a better, more patient player, he says, and the Texas coaching staff gave him more opportunities to develop his pass-rushing skills. The major flaw that some scouts find in his game is that he doesn't always take on blockers head-on, they say, and is better when the play goes away from him and he uses his speed to run down a ballcarrier.
Teams looking for defensive help on the line or at linebacker might have to choose between Johnson and the so-called 'tweeners such as Maryland's Shawne Merriman and Troy University's Demarcus Ware. It is thought that those players will start coming off the board, barring major trade activity, around the time the Detroit Lions choose with the 10th overall selection and the Dallas Cowboys use the 11th pick. But Merriman said recently that he is having as much trouble as everyone else trying to figure out this constantly-in-flux draft.
"It's hard to pick out who wants you," Merriman said. "Some of the teams might not show you any love at all. They're trying to act like they don't want you. I think I met with [Lions Coach] Steve Mariucci maybe 3 1/2 minutes, and that could be where I end up. It's like, 'Glad you came here. Glad you came out. Thank you. I'll talk to you later.' "