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VERSATILITY IS TOP TRAIT, HANDS DOWN
MERRIMAN TOPS GROUP ABLE TO FILL SEVERAL ROLES

This is the fifth in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment looks at defensive linemen.

He's a defensive end. He's an outside linebacker. Maryland junior Shawne Merriman has been both during his college career. But there is one title that fits him best.

Football player.

"I can run with any back or any tight end. And at the same time I can go against any (offensive) tackle," Merriman said during the NFL combine in February. "Whatever teams want to do with me is fine with me, and I can adjust to it."

Teams using a 3-4 defense are looking for defensive ends who can be outside linebackers. They are seeking defensive tackles who can play at end or on the nose of the center. Even 4-3 defenses that employ zone blitzes desire linemen who can drop into pass coverage.

A whopping 24 defensive linemen have been chosen in the first round of the last three drafts. This year's class may not be as deep, but the group is unique because of its versatility.

"There is going to be a lot of discussion, probably more time even, on the guys with their hand on the ground and the ones that are up," said Buffalo Bills Assistant General Manager Tom Modrak. "I think the state of the art is going to be those guys who can do both and do different things for you. I think that's where it's going and will continue to go."

Merriman is a Willie McGinest type with the speed (4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash) to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and the size (6-foot-4, 272 pounds) and strength (bench pressed 225 pounds 25 times) to line up at end in a 4-3.

Used primarily as a stand-up pass rusher, Merriman finished with 85 tackles (17 for losses) and 8 1/2 sacks in his only season as a full-time starter. He's a disruptive run-stopper on the perimeter because of his quickness and ability to get into the backfield. He also is flexible enough to drop into coverage.

"There are some players that can go either way," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said at the NFL meetings. "They have the right frame, the right set of skills. But those are very unique players. (Merriman) probably has a shot to go either way."

Merriman is the best of the all-purpose defensive linemen. Louisiana State's Marcus Spears, Oklahoma's Dan Cody, Wisconsin's Erasmus James, Georgia's David Pollack and Florida State's Travis Johnson also are projected as first-round picks.

Some scouts think Spears is a better fit as a 3-4 end, but he excelled in the 4-3 scheme at LSU. He also has the size (6-3 1/2 , 302) and toughness to play tackle in certain situations.

James, who missed the 2003 season with a hip injury, is a strong edge rusher and is stout against the run. Some teams might look at Cody (6-5, 257) and Pollack (6-2, 265) as outside linebackers because of their size, but both display natural pass-rushing skills with their hand on the ground.

Johnson is considered the only elite defensive tackle. A likely top-15 pick, Johnson is a disruptive player with the quickness to make plays in the backfield and the leverage to hold his ground at the point of attack.

"I can play two gap, but I'm a one-gap, get up the field, cause havoc kind of player," Johnson said at the combine. "You just have to have the attitude that you can't be stopped. When you have that, you can't be stopped. The only person who has ever stopped me is myself."

Another potential first-round defensive tackle is Southern California's Shaun Cody, who also can play end. He's an intense and instinctive player with exceptional strength (bench pressed 225 pounds 32 times) and athleticism.

Virginia defensive end Chris Canty might have been a first-rounder if not for a serious knee injury he suffered last season. He could be a great value pick in Round Two because of his size (6-7, 279), agility and intelligence.

With Pat Williams' free agent departure and Justin Bannan's move to offensive guard, the Bills are expected to select a defensive tackle on the first day.

Southern Cal's Mike Patterson (5-11 1/2 , 290) lacks ideal size, but his strength and disruptive quickness would be a good fit in the Bills' aggressive defensive packages. Iowa's Jonathan Babineaux would give Buffalo an athletic interior pass rusher.

Northwestern's Luis Castillo is a strong run stuffer whose stock could be affected after he tested positive for androstenedione, considered a steroid by the NFL, at the combine.

TOP DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Name School Pos. Ht. Wt.

Shawne Merriman Maryland DE 6-4 272

Travis Johnson Florida St. DT 6-4 305

Marcus Spears LSU DE 6-3 1/2 302

Erasmus James Wisconsin DE 6-4 1/2 266

David Pollack Georgia DE 6-2 265

Dan Cody Oklahoma DE 6-5 257

Shaun Cody Southern Cal DT 6-4 293

Matt Roth Iowa DE 6-3 279

Luis Castillo Northwestern DT 6-3 305

Mike Patterson Southern Cal DT 5-11 1/2 290

NEXT: Linebackers.
e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com