At quiet LB position, still waters run deep

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  1. Arch Stanton

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    At quiet LB position, still waters run deep
    News Sports Reporter

    This is the sixth of seven stories sizing up the college talent available for the upcoming National Football League Draft. Today's story looks at linebackers.

    The glamour usually eludes the linebacker position in the NFL draft.

    No linebacker has been taken in the top 10 picks in six years. Only nine linebackers have been taken in the first round overall in the last five years.

    Finally, linebackers will get some time in the spotlight this year. Next to running back Reggie Bush, Ohio State's A.J. Hawk arguably was the most dominant player at his position in college football last season.

    Hawk is projected to be taken among the first seven picks and should be the first top-10 backer since LaVar Arrington was drafted second overall in 1999.

    "It's understandable," Hawk says. "Obviously we're not big defensive ends who are going to get 15 to 18 sacks a year. We're not going to be a running back who's going to rush for 1,500 yards. It's a spot where there's three or four of them on the field, I guess you can justify not taking guys too high. All I want is a chance, regardless of where I'm taken."

    In the NFL's salary cap era, the positions that get both the high picks and the big money are quarterback, running back, receiver, left tackle, pass rusher and cornerback. Linebackers are less of a commodity.

    However, this is one of the deepest years ever at that position.

    "I think there are a lot of great linebackers," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said. "It's one of the better linebacker groups I've seen at the top. And it's pretty deep."

    "Inside linebacker is probably the strongest group I've seen in 20-some years I've done this," said Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh's director of football operations. "It's strong at the top, strong in the middle and there are some kids on the second day that will be contributors if not starters."

    It starts with Hawk, a two-time first-team All-American. He's the closest thing to Takeo Spikes the draft has seen the last six years. He can play all three linebacker spots. His vertical jump was 40 inches, the same as Bush's. His time in the short shuttle test was 3.6 seconds. How good is that? Clemson cornerback Ty Hill, who will be a first-round pick, did it in 4.01. He's 63 pounds lighter than Hawk.

    Iowa's Chad Greenway, Florida State's Ernie Sims and Alabama's DeMeco Ryans are in a group as the next best pure linebackers, according to many scouts, and all three should be first-round picks. Sims ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day (Hawk ran 4.59) but might have some character questions. He's a prototypical weak-side backer in the Tampa-style defense. Greenway is a tough, every-down backer who also fits the weak side. Ryans is a four-time all-academic player in the Southeastern Conference. He can cover and rush the passer and play in the 3-4 or the 4-3. Edge rushers Manny Lawson of North Carolina State and Kamerion Wimbley of Florida State could sneak ahead of either Sims or Ryans, depending on a team's needs. Both played defensive end in college. Lawson is only 241, Wimbley only 238. Both would be perfect as a rush linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Lawson ran 4.43 in the 40. The top inside backer may be D'Qwell Jackson of Maryland, whose stock is rising. He was Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He's a tad undersized. Both he and Iowa inside backer Abdul Hodge look like second-round picks. Hodge was productive for three years for the Hawkeyes.

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