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Hard to Get a Grasp on Defensive Linemen

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page D14

The odd thing about defensive linemen available in this weekend's NFL draft is that the league's talent evaluators seem most interested in those players who don't have a clearly defined position.

Three of the defensive ends likely to be drafted in the first round tomorrow -- Maryland's Shawne Merriman, Troy University's Demarcus Ware and Georgia's David Pollack -- could end up being linebackers in the NFL.

_____ NFL Draft Journal _____
Don't just watch it on TV. Get up-to-the-minute analysis of what the draft means for the Redskins.

_____ NFL Draft Preview _____
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Defensive Linemen: Some of the top players don't have a clearly defined position.
Michael Wilbon: The NFL draft is anybody's guess.
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.
Running Backs: Three tailbacks are poised to grab the spotlight.
Quarterbacks: Questions remain about the quality of the best QBs.
Despite multiple injuries, Terps' Chris Kelley sets sights on draft.

_____ On Our Site _____
First-round chart
Mark Maske's mock draft (Updated Thursday)

_____ Top Five Defensive Ends _____
Erasmus James
School: Wisconsin
Year: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 266
Upside: Superb pass rusher
Downside: Missed the 2003 season with a hip injury thought at the time to be career-threatening, but returned to play last season

Marcus Spears
School: LSU
Year: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 307
Upside: Strong, powerful player who stops the run better than most defensive ends
Downside: Not as explosive of a pass rusher as some other top prospects

Matt Roth
School: Iowa
Year: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 278
Upside: Relentless pass rusher whose intensity is legendary at Iowa.
Downside: Sometimes has difficulty shedding blocks when engaged.

Dan Cody
School: Oklahoma
Year: Senior
Height: 6-5
Weight: 254
Upside: Aggressive player who had 10 sacks in each of last two seasons
Downside: Missed all but one game of 2001 season because of clinical depression

Justin Tuck
School: Notre Dame
Year: Junior
Height: 6-5
Weight: 268
Upside: Good speed rusher
Downside: Slipped to six sacks last season after getting 13 1/2 as a sophomore

_____ Top 'Tweeners _____
Shawne Merriman (Maryland)
Demarcus Ware (Troy)
David Pollack (Georgia)

___ Top Five Defensive Tackles ___
Travis Johnson
School: Florida State
Year: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 305
Upside: Confident player who is regarded as the most talented defensive tackle available
Downside: Has a reputation for being difficult to coach

Shaun Cody
School: Southern Cal
Year: Senior
Height: 6-4
Weight: 293
Upside: Versatile player who can play tackle or end
Downside: There are questions about whether he's powerful enough to be a dominant tackle

Mike Patterson
School: Southern Cal
Year: Senior
Height: 6-0
Weight: 292
Upside: Agility for a big man earned him the nickname "Baby Sapp"
Downside: Is he big enough?

Luis Castillo
School: Northwestern
Year: Senior
Height: 6-3
Weight: 303
Upside: Tough run-stuffer who also managed 8 1/2 sacks last season
Downside: Reportedly tested positive for androstenedione at the scouting combine under the NFL's steroid-testing program

Jonathan Babineaux
School: Iowa
Year: Senior
Height: 6-2
Weight: 286
Upside: Quick interior pass rusher who had 11 sacks (plus 25 tackles for losses) last season
Downside: Needs to add bulk

_____ 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

_____NFL Basics_____
Team index
NFL Section
_____Mark Maske's NFL Insider_____
Opinions Differ Over Strength of RB Class (washingtonpost.com, Apr 21, 2005)
49ers Shop for Discount on Top Pick (washingtonpost.com, Apr 20, 2005)
TV Deals Show League's Might (washingtonpost.com, Apr 19, 2005)

"I know it's coming," Pollack said of his prospective position switch. "I figure it's, 'Can you play linebacker?' or, 'Can you play both?' But I can. I know I can."

While the pre-draft spotlight has been on those so-called 'tweeners, there are other defensive linemen who intrigue coaches, scouts and front office executives. That list includes ends Marcus Spears of LSU and Erasmus James of Wisconsin, and tackles Travis Johnson of Florida State and Shaun Cody of Southern Cal. Those players figure to start getting selected around the middle of the first round.

About a half-dozen defensive ends likely will be selected in the first round, counting the three prominent 'tweeners. There have been rumblings recently that Ware's draft stock, in particular, is rising rapidly and teams might attempt to trade into position to select him.

Pollack appears likely to be chosen in the second half of the opening round, and he is among the draft's more interesting players. He had a knack for making big plays in college, amassing 34 sacks in his final three seasons at Georgia and 36 in all. But some scouts wonder whether he has the size and speed to succeed as a pro.

"I've been sleeping upside down. It's not working," Pollack said with a grin at the scouting combine in late February, when he checked in at 6 feet 2, 265 pounds. "One thing I'm proud of when people say that is, I can't control how tall I am. That's something that's God-given. But I can control what I do. And if the [doubt] is going to be about my height, then I'm being pretty successful."

Pollack, like Merriman and Ware, probably would end up playing outside linebacker if he's drafted by a club that utilizes a 3-4 alignment; in that defensive scheme, the outside linebackers regularly rush the quarterback on passing plays. Some teams apparently even think Pollack could be moved to inside linebacker, a more drastic position switch. If he's selected by a club that uses a 4-3 defense, Pollack, like the other 'tweeners, likely would remain at defensive end.

James and Spears generally are regarded as the two top defensive ends who aren't candidates for a move to linebacker. Spears, who weighed in at 307 pounds at the combine, could be a candidate to play defensive tackle at times in the NFL.

He wavered last year about whether to enter the 2004 draft and ended up returning to LSU for his senior season. Now he's entering the league at the same time as his coach at the school, Nick Saban, who accepted the Miami Dolphins' coaching job. Spears and Saban are close. Spears said he would go fishing on Saban's property in Baton Rouge and would take along Aiysha Smith, his then-girlfriend who played basketball at LSU and now is with the WNBA's Washington Mystics.

"I used to go fishing at his house," Spears said at the combine. "From time to time, I'd take my girlfriend -- now my fiancee -- and he would ask her, 'When is this guy going to take you on a real date?' He told me he was going to close the gate on his house so I could finally take her out on a real date."

The Dolphins have the second overall pick in the draft but appear eager to trade down to add selections. Such a deal perhaps would put Saban into position to consider choosing Spears, who said at the combine he would love to be reunited with his former coach.

"If it comes to light that he's looking for a defensive position, I'm pretty sure that he'll have me in mind," said Spears, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery this offseason but indicated he would be fully healed well before his rookie season. "I wouldn't mind that. It would be a lot of fun to go down there and play for him again. But you never know what's going to happen on that day."

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