Defensive Gems Below the Surface
By Michael David Smith
Players who touch the ball -- quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs -- will dominate the first hour or two of the 2005 NFL draft, to be held April 23â€“24 at the Jacob K. Javits Center. Although teams can always change their minds at the last moment, most projections indicate that two quarterbacks, three running backs, and two wide receivers will be the first seven players selected. Yet despite the dearth of defensive players at the top of the list, this is a deep draft, and several teams can hope to pick up defensive standouts later on Saturday. Here are profiles of the defensive players whose names are most likely to be called during the first two rounds.
LSU, 6-foot-4, 298 lbs.
When it comes to stopping the run, no prospect at defensive end can hold a candle to Spears.Teams will always run away from him.Some question whether he has enough speed -- his time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was a subpar 5.03 -- but defensive linemen rarely need to run 40 yards on a play, and his first step is quick. Although most analysts have him a bit lower down on the board, he's our choice for the best end in the draft.
Maryland, 6-foot-4, 253 lbs.
Merriman's stock has soared in the last two months because of his excellent workout numbers, including a 4.61 in the 40 and a 38.5-inch vertical jump. He has the kind of speed teams kill for in their defensive linemen; his highlight film includes several plays when he caught running backs from behind. Critics point out that last year was his first as a full-time starter in college, and that he might be better suited for outside linebacker.
Georgia, 6-foot-2, 261 lbs.
No defensive player in the country made more big-time plays last year than Pollack. As a pass rusher, he frequently drew double teams yet still became the school's all-time leader in sacks. But some scouts wonder whether he has the strength to face NFL offensive linemen head-on every game. Like Merriman, he might be better suited to the linebacker position in the NFL.
Wisconsin, 6-foot-4, 263 lbs.
No one questions James's ability to rush the passer: He can get around an offensive tackle so quickly that opposing quarterbacks always have to keep an eye on him. But he missed all of 2003 and much of 2004 with injuries. That will scare off many teams, but not enough to keep him out of the first round.
Oklahoma, 6-foot-4, 270 lbs.
Cody is a good pass rusher who had 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons, and he's the fastest defensive end in the draft. On the other hand, offensive linemen in college occasionally pushed him around, and in the NFL he'll face opponents who outweigh him by 50â€“100 pounds. Probably a late firstround pick, he might make more sense as an outside linebacker in a 3â€“4 front.
Notre Dame, 6-foot-5, 256 lbs.
With all the talk in South Bend about Charlie Weis replacing Tyrone Willingham, the news that the Fighting Irish's best player decided to leave didn't get much attention. Tuck is a great talent who owns the school sack record even though he left after his junior year. He doesn't always look pretty when he's making plays, but he has good instincts and should go early in the second round.
Florida State, 6-foot-4, 290 lbs.
Johnson never really distinguished himself from his teammates at Florida State, but that says more about the talent level of the Seminoles than it does about him. He's seen more as the type of tackle who can rush the passer than as the type who can clog the middle and stop the run.He'll probably go midway through the first round.
USC, 6-foot-4, 292 lbs.
Scouts were surprised that Cody was able to bench-press 225 pounds 34 times but was unable to break five seconds in the 40-yard dash; in college he was known more for his speed than for his strength. He's probably a firstround choice, but some worry that he might be the classic player who doesn't have the speed to play end or the size to play tackle.
Iowa, 6-foot-2, 281 lbs.
In 2000, Babineaux was an exciting true freshman prospect for the Hawkeyes -- as a fullback. A broken leg caused him to miss all of 2001, and by 2002, he had put on weight and moved to the defensive line. Since then, he's developed into a fine defensive player, and capped his career with three sacks in the Capital One Bowl. His injury history (which also includes missing half a season after hurting his knee) is a concern, but he's a tremendous athlete who should go in the second round.
Northwestern, 6-foot-3, 306 lbs.
Castillo is the most intriguing defensive player in the draft. Some teams see him as too big a risk because he acknowledged taking a drug on the NFL's list of banned performance-enhancing substances and therefore has one strike against him. But other teams love the fact that he ran the fastest 40 in the combine of any player weighing more than 300 pounds, and he benchpressed 225 pounds 32 times. Castillo could be a first-rounder or he could slide all the way to the third round.
Texas, 6-foot-3, 240 lbs.
Johnson might be the fastest linebacker in the NFL next year. The most impressive thing about him is the technique he's developed to punch the ball out of the hands of opposing players; his college career includes 11 forced fumbles. Some people worry that he's too easy to block and that he avoids contact, but he'll make an immediate impact on a team that puts him at weak-side linebacker and allows him the freedom to improvise and run to the ball.
Troy, 6-foot-4, 247 lbs.
Ware is so fast that he was actually recruited as a wide receiver. He was the defensive player of the year in the Sun Belt Conference, and although that conference isn't known for producing great NFL players, he can cover 10 yards so fast that it's hard to imagine he won't go in the first round.
Georgia, 6-foot-1, 237 lbs.
Thurman is one of the draft's hardest players to figure out. He looked like a great football player in college, but he's seen as strictly an inside linebacker, and there aren't many 237-pound inside linebackers in the NFL. He also has faced off-field problems and was suspended for the first three games of the 2004 season, and that will probably make him slip out of the first round.
Miami, 6 feet, 202 lbs.
Rolle is big and strong and can push receivers around, but the question is whether he'll be able to thrive under the NFL's more stringent illegal-contact and pass-interference rules. Every NFL team loves signing players from Miami, and Rolle is the school's best prospect this year. His toughness, athleticism, and ability to play the run make him a good all-around corner and is likely the first defensive player selected.
West Virginia, 5-foot-11, 187 lbs.
â€œPac-Manâ€? makes big plays all over the field. He's very good against the run, in addition to shutting down many of the receivers he faced. To boot, he was the Big East's special teams player of the year.
Auburn, 6 feet, 195 lbs.
His offensive teammates have garnered more attention, but Rogers won the Jim Thorpe Award and was the best defensive player on Auburn's undefeated team. He is a good tackler, but he wasn't always able to stay with opposing receivers in man coverage.
Nebraska, 5-foot-10, 183 lbs.
Washington ran a sub-4.3 40 time, and his 41.5-inch vertical jump was the best at the combine. But some people question whether he's strong enough to play the run or fight off the bigger receivers he'll face in the NFL. He should go late in the first round.
Georgia, 6-foot-1, 231 lbs.
Davis might be a better fit at outside linebacker. He's a good hitter reminiscent of Sean Taylor, the Redskins' firstround pick last season. There are some doubts about his coverage ability, which is why he might change positions. But some team will take him in the first round.
Oklahoma, 6-foot-2, 208 lbs.
Good in coverage and in run support, Pool falls behind Davis on every draft board because he's not as big. Still, he's tough enough that the right team might be able to land him as a late firstround pick and have an immediate starter on its hands.
Nebraska, 6 feet, 207 lbs.
Bullocks is very good at getting to the ball and has good hands. He's not a very good tackler, though, and that will scare some teams off. He looks like a second-round pick.