Defenders who supply versatility in demand

Terps' Merriman heads list of end/linebacker `tweeners'

April 20, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In years past, a "tweener" in the NFL draft was most often a player of compromising size, dual positions and suspect potential. It was a dismissive term at best.

Now comes Shawne Merriman. And David Pollack. And Demarcus Ware. And Erasmus James. And Justin Tuck. And maybe a half-dozen others.

Call them tweeners and congratulate them. Their time has arrived in the NFL.

In a season when as many as 12 teams may employ a 3-4 defensive alignment - the league's newest trend - the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker is suddenly in demand.

"When you talk about players like a Shawne Merriman, he really becomes interesting because he's a versatile guy," Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe said. "And depending on the defense you play, some people will see him as a 4-3 end and some people will see him as a 34 outside linebacker.

"But [the move toward 3-4 defense] does put a premium on those types of players."

Merriman, a 6-foot-4, 272-pound defensive end from Maryland, is at the front of a new wave of undersized pass rushers. He is quick enough to run the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds, which he did in an on-campus workout for NFL scouts. He is agile enough to jump 38 1/2 inches vertically. And he is strong enough to bench press 385 pounds.

The key point is, he can put one hand on the ground and rush the quarterback as an end, or line up at linebacker and drop into pass coverage against a running back. Or do both, as the Terrapins had him do.

That versatility is what makes him so attractive to teams with either the 4-3 or 3-4 look. Increasingly, teams are apt to switch defenses within a game.

"I think whoever takes him is going to have some flexibility within their scheme," said Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney.

The Terps used Merriman as a standup linebacker in their base defense and dropped him into a three-point stance in their nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six) schemes.

"We were trying to put him in a position where he'd have to defeat one blocker instead of several blockers to give him a chance to make some plays," Blackney said. "He was a major factor and key playmaker in our defense the last year and a half. Last year he came on like gangbusters."

In his first full season as a starter at Maryland, Merriman had 85 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks and 17 tackles for losses. He was so dominant he forfeited his senior year to declare for the draft.

He has no preference about playing end or linebacker.

"I can run with any back or any tight end," he said. "At the same time, I can go against any tackle. Whatever teams want to do with me is fine with me, and I can adjust to it."

Merriman was not the only player who went through drills at two positions in the scouting combine in February. Notre Dame defensive end Justin Tuck (6-5, 245) was another. He was equally confident in his ability to adjust, too.

"I'm versatile. I've played linebacker and I've played it sometimes this year in different packages we have," Tuck said. "Either way, I'm going to be the steal of this draft."

Other prominent tweeners in this draft include Pollack of Georgia, Ware of Troy, James of Wisconsin, Tyson Smith of Iowa State, Eric Moore of Florida State, and Trent Cole of Cincinnati.

Most of those players, however, are destined to play for 3-4 teams because of a lack of bulk.

"There are a bunch of those types of guys in this draft, and teams going to the 3-4 will get the pick of those players," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.

"They are players that only 3-4 teams will have rated very highly because they have specific jobs those guys can do."

Merriman, from Upper Marlboro, has no such limitations. He would probably lose 15 pounds to play outside linebacker, or add another 10 to become an end.

"I'd be lying to myself and you all if I said I didn't think I was the best defensive player in the draft," said Merriman, who likely will be taken in the middle of the first round.

Blackney said Merriman could even play middle linebacker. He raves about Merriman's long-term potential.

"He was just 17 when he came to us and he's 20 now," Blackney said. "He hasn't reached his growth potential in terms of technique and football knowledge. Down the road, he's going to grow and learn a lot."

NFL DRAFT

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Ravens' first three picks: 22nd, 53rd, 84th

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