Shawne Merriman already looks the part of an NFL star. He received his first bonus check and purchased two luxury cars and a house in a San Diego suburb that has a movie theater and a pool with a waterfall. He has a catchy nickname and a chiseled upper body covered with tattoos. He is big, strong and eye-catchingly fast and has a nasty on-the-field demeanor, and he has an engaging, exuberant personality that will make those carrying notepads and mini-cams regulars around his locker.
Now all he needs to do is actually play like a star.
The first-round draft pick by the San Diego Chargers out of the University of Maryland got his initial taste of NFL preseason action here Sunday in the team's 36-21 triumph over the St. Louis Rams. Merriman, who had about 10 family members on hand for the game, was credited with three tackles, two of them for losses on consecutive third-quarter plays. It wasn't a bad debut, given that he missed the Chargers' offseason program because of an unusual dispute with the club over an injury waiver and then injured his hamstring after arriving in training camp.
The Chargers hope for big things from Merriman, whom they selected with the 12th overall choice in the draft in April and then signed three weeks ago to a five-year, $11.3 million contract that includes $9 million in bonus money. He is mostly playing outside linebacker but could get some time at defensive end, and he could fill one of the few remaining needs -- for another fearsome pass rusher -- on a team that went 12-4 and won the AFC West last season.
Merriman is eager to get comfortable with the NFL game and begin applying some of the heavy hits to offensive players that led him to give himself his "Lights Out" moniker.
"Once I get everything down pat," Merriman said last week at the Chargers' training facility, "I can't wait to get out here and put that 'Lights Out' hit on a couple people."
He left Maryland after his junior season and rose on NFL teams' draft boards in the spring when scouts realized that a man so big (6 feet 4 and currently about 266 pounds) also was so fast (he was timed at about 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his campus workout for the league's talent evaluators). He just turned 21 and isn't a refined player, but he is in a good situation.
The Chargers don't need a savior and Coach Marty Schottenheimer, even with his no-nonsense methods, turned the late Derrick Thomas into one of the sport's best-ever pass rushers in Kansas City and was more tolerant than any other recent Redskins coach of linebacker LaVar Arrington's freelancing ways when he was in Washington.
Of Merriman, Schottenheimer said: "You've seen guys that size. And you've seen guys that can run. But when you put the size and the speed together, and then he's a very competitive young man. He has the physical skills. But this is a game, as we all know, that goes far beyond that."
Schottenheimer said that Merriman is "way behind" in his development because of the time that he missed and he doesn't know if Merriman will be ready to play a significant role on the Chargers' defense at the outset of the regular season.
"Hopefully we can find ways to let him compete in a few of the packages that we're using . . . [but] there's no way to speed this process up," Schottenheimer said. "It's like laying a foundation. You have to put one brick on top of the other. There's no way to go through that process other than repetition."
Merriman readily acknowledges that he's playing catch-up, and says it may take him his entire rookie season to fully settle in.
"I'm going to be still kind of thinking my way through things," he said. "I'll see things differently every week. . . . I think all the way through the season, you're going to see different things and you're going to second-guess yourself and be a little hesitant. But my job is to go out and, even if I don't know it 100 percent, go 100 percent. If I make a mistake, it's going to be a 100 percent mistake."
He missed the team's offseason camps because his agent, Kevin Poston, was unable to agree with Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith on the wording of a waiver to protect Merriman financially if he got hurt before signing a contract. Agreeing to such a waiver usually is standard practice around the league, but Merriman said he doesn't regret the stance that he and Poston took.
"That's how that whole thing worked out," he said. "It was just business, and everything worked out perfectly. . . . The only thing I do regret is, I wish I'd gotten a playbook. In my off time, that would have helped out a little bit. But I didn't get that, so I had to talk to a couple teammates, which I did to kind of keep up with what was going on."
The offseason dispute seemed to be a likely precursor to a combative and lengthy set of contract negotiations. Instead, those deliberations went relatively smoothly. Merriman had to lose about seven pounds after arriving in training camp because he'd allowed his weight to rise, not knowing whether he'd need to be heavier to play defensive end or lighter to play linebacker. But he said he didn't have too many fences to mend.
"The vets knew the first time they met me that I was going to come in and work hard," Merriman said. "I wasn't a bigheaded cat coming in. I was just coming in here to show my talents and make sure they could rely on me."
His teammates tease Merriman about his habit of making sure his shirt is off when the cameras are on him walking off the practice field, but they seem to like the rookie.
"He likes to show off," linebacker Donnie Edwards said. "He's very confident, but why not? The guy is a monster."
Like all rookies, Merriman must endure training-camp hazing. In his case, it includes one expensive ritual reserved for early draft picks with newly beefy bank accounts.
"I've carried [teammates'] pads off the field," he said. "I've got to move in the shower. It's like, 'Hey, rook, move over.' I'm standing naked like, 'Oh, man, I'm just trying to get a shower.' It's part of being a rookie. In a couple weeks, I've got my good old $25,000 dinner taking the whole team out on me. . . . It ran about that much last year. I had to clean the credit card up just for that affair, man. It should be pretty good."
He has no complaints these days, he says. It was another in a long line of perfect San Diego days as Merriman looked at the picturesque hills alongside the Chargers' practice fields.
"It's nice out here, man," he said. "The weather's always like this. Training camp has been pretty tough and long. But at the same time, when it's like this, you can't say too much."