Nine months after nearly half of the NFL's teams bypassed him in the first round of the college draft, Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse has established himself as the league's best rookie defender--and perhaps its most dominant defensive player.
In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, it also is clear that Kearse--not Kurt Warner or Marshall Faulk or Steve McNair or Eddie George--will be the most important player on the field on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. He is forcing St. Louis to make changes to its high-powered offense.
He has been compared to Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who redefined the game with his relentless pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. It is a comparison Kearse likes.
"That's the kind of player I wanted to be coming into the NFL--a player the other team has to account for on every down," Kearse said today. "I wanted to be one of the players who can take over a game and the other team adds you to their game plan."
Kearse has become one of those players in his first NFL season. His 14 1/2 sacks during the regular season led the AFC and set an NFL rookie record. He forced 10 fumbles, the most in the league, and was selected to the Pro Bowl and the all-pro team.
"You can't compare him to any defensive lineman, because there just aren't other defensive linemen who can do the things he does," veteran Titans safety Blaine Bishop said. "I guess LT comes to mind. He can do everything. The guy is phenomenal. He has so much talent."
And it's more than just the numbers with Kearse. It's how he amasses the statistics. He is not an overpowering player, at 6 feet 4 and 265 pounds. But he has been timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.43 seconds, and last spring he tied Deion Sanders for the fastest first 10 yards of a 40 recorded at the scouting combine.
But it is about attitude as much as speed with Kearse. He doesn't give up on plays even when he's blocked. He covered tight ends and running backs on pass plays this season on zone-blitz schemes, and he also tackled backs and wide receivers down field on plays that began with him rushing the quarterback. As a result, he earned the nickname "the Freak."
Bishop said: "He has the right name. He's a freak of nature. He's unbelievable. He can chase down running backs who run 4.3s. He can rush the passer. He can cover tight ends. He can probably play any position on defense except cornerback."
Kearse made a pre-draft visit to the Rams, who wanted him to play the same position in the NFL--outside linebacker--that he played at the University of Florida after being moved from safety. But the Rams, who had the sixth selection in the April draft, picked wide receiver Torry Holt, and Kearse wasn't taken until the 16th choice.
Some teams were uncertain about whether Kearse would be a linebacker or a defensive end, and didn't know whether he was big and strong enough to be a force on running plays.
"I expected to go earlier than I did," Kearse said. " . . . I expected to go in the top 10 or 12."
Kearse admits, however, that his rookie-season goals for himself were somewhat more modest than becoming the most feared defensive player in football.
"In my mind, I envisioned myself making an impact and making a lot of plays," he said. "But I didn't necessarily see it happening this season. . . . My goals for myself were to earn my money and make everyone believe I could do the things they said I couldn't do. People said I couldn't play the run, and I came out and played the run very well. Then I wanted to do what the Titans brought me in to do, and that's get some sacks."
By the middle of the season, Kearse said, he noticed that teams were blocking him differently. He was facing more double- and triple-teaming blocking. That's when he officially had arrived. That has become the norm now, and Kearse at times has had to be satisfied with creating opportunities for the other members of the Tennessee defense to make tackles.
Kearse, working against Pro Bowl right tackle Leon Searcy, had only two tackles and no sacks in the Titans' 33-14 victory at Jacksonville last Sunday in the AFC championship game. Kearse has gone two games without a sack after beginning the playoffs with two sacks and a safety against the Buffalo Bills. He denied rumors today that he's playing on an ailing ankle.
When Tennessee beat St. Louis, 24-21, on Oct. 31 in Nashville, the Rams made the mistake of letting Kearse go one on one against right tackle Fred Miller. Kearse was in quarterback Warner's face all day, and had a sack and forced a fumble. Miller had six false-start penalties.
"I'm sure he has become a better player since then," Kearse said today. "But I've become a better player as well."
Miller has vowed to play better in the rematch, and the Rams coaches say they will give far more attention to Kearse this time. That probably means using a tight end to help block him, since the Rams don't want to keep running back Faulk in the backfield on passing plays because he's such a dangerous receiver. Kearse is becoming accustomed to the game-changing, offense-altering attention.
"I gained a lot of respect around the league," Kearse said. "A lot of teams added me to their game plans. I'm taking up two and three blockers, and that frees up other people on our team to have one-on-ones. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing. I have to keep coming hard and keep those two or three guys on me."
CAPTION: "I wanted to be one of the players who can take over a game and the other team adds you to their game plan," said Tennessee's Jevon Kearse, right, who led the AFC with 14 1/2 sacks.