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.
_____ NFL Draft Preview _____ • Linebackers: Texas's Derrick Johnson and Maryland's Shawne Merriman are the top defenders available.
• Secondary: Cornerback Adam Jones is likely to be an early first-round choice.
• Wide Receivers: Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams headline an impressive crop of first-round receivers.
• Running Backs: Three tailbacks are poised to grab the spotlight Saturday.
• Quarterbacks: Questions remain about the quality of the best QBs.
• Despite multiple injuries, Terps' Chris Kelley sets sights on draft.
_____ On Our Site _____ • Mark Maske's mock draft (Updated Thursday)
_____ Top 'Tweeners _____
1. Shawne Merriman
Upside: Big and athletic
Downside: Isn't even 21 and only made 17 college starts.
2. Demarcus Ware
School: Troy University
Upside: Raw speed that perhaps could move him ahead of Merriman and Derrick Johnson to be the first non-cornerback defensive player drafted.
Downside: Lack of top competition.
3. David Pollack
Upside: Had 36 sacks during highly decorated collegiate career.
Downside: Is he fast and athletic enough to be a standout at the next level?
_____ Top Five Linebackers _____
1. Derrick Johnson
Upside: Playmaker who caused nine fumbles last season.
Downside: Is better in pursuit than when a play comes straight at him.
2. Channing Crowder
Upside: Tough player who could play inside or outside linebacker.
Downside: Played only two years of college football after missing freshman season because of a knee injury.
3. Barrett Ruud
Upside: Known as a smart, experienced player.
Downside: There are questions about whether he's strong enough to hold up over a grueling NFL season.
4. Darryl Blackstock
Upside: Led nation's linebackers with 11 sacks last season.
Downside: Is not regarded as a run-stuffer.
5. Kevin Burnett
Upside: Good leader who was a team captain and has a master's degree.
Downside: Some scouts think he doesn't have great instincts for the position.
_____ First Round Draft Order _____ 1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Miami Dolphins
3. Cleveland Browns
4. Chicago Bears
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6. Tennessee Titans
7. Minnesota (From Oak.)
8. Arizona Cardinals
9. Washington Redskins
10. Detroit Lions
11. Dallas Cowboys
12. S.D. Chargers (From Giants)
13. Houston Texans
14. Carolina Panthers
15. Kansas City Chiefs
16. New Orleans Saints
17. Cincinnati Bengals
18. Minnesota Vikings
19. St. Louis Rams
20. Dallas Cowboys (From Buffalo)
21. Jacksonville Jaguars
22. Baltimore Ravens
23. Seattle Seahawks
24. Green Bay Packers
25. Redskins (From Denver)
26. Oakland Raiders (From Jets)
27. Atlanta Falcons
28. San Diego Chargers
29. Indianapolis Colts
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
31. Philadelphia Eagles
32. New England Patriots
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.' "