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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.

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"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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