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Steelers

Profiles of top defensive players

| Saturday, April 22, 2006

Top defensive players in next weekend's NFL draft, grouped by projected NFL positions. All are seniors unless noted.

LINEMEN

POSITION OUTLOOK: There will be plenty of talented pass rushers on the first day of the draft, including two potential stars from N.C. State, Mario Williams and Manny Lawson. Those two, along with Kamerion Wimbley of Florida State, are likely to be the first three taken in a DE-rich draft. The prospects aren't quite as elite at tackle, though Haloti Ngata and Brodrick Bunkley have lots of appeal for their natural, havoc-wreaking talent. After those two are gone, teams should find plenty of good value in the next several prospects.

Ends

MARIO WILLIAMS , North Carolina State, 6-6.5, 292, junior -- Alluring combination of size, speed and athletic ability, he could develop into a dominating end. Can take most tackles with his first step, and has the upper-body strength and fluidity to elude those he can't beat off the line. Big-play ability. The major drawback: Williams is raw, struggles to disengage once blockers get into his pads, and he can be stood up by shorter, stronger players. His technique leaves a lot of work for coaches, and his motivation can be inconsistent. Teams will find it tough to pass on his natural abilities, though.

KAMERION WIMBLEY , Florida State, 6-3.75, 248 -- An explosive, if undersized DE who could be a great fit at OLB for a team running the 3-4 defense. Very quick, he can change direction quickly and run down ball carriers. Good open field tackler who takes the proper angle to the ball. Excellent at sniffing out misdirection. If he stays at DE, could get eaten alive against the run by offensive tackles unless he adds considerable bulk. As a pass rusher, he relies more on speed than moves.

MANNY LAWSON , North Carolina State, 6-5, 238 -- Another athletic tweener whose measurables might spell OLB to the right team. A raw but potentially dangerous pass rusher. Excellent speed for his size, he has a good closing burst on the QB, and can run down RBs from behind. Solid open-field tackler, which could be handy if he gets moved to OLB. Should be able to make plays on special teams, too. Needs to add bulk to his frame no matter which position he's drafted for. Avoiding blocks is still an issue for him.

MATHIAS KIWANUKA , Boston College, 6-5.5, 261 -- Excellent pass rusher skilled at anticipating the snap count and getting around most tackles. His moves will need some work, but he's shown the agility and nose for the QB that suggest he'll become adept in NFL. Should bat down a lot of passes and run down ball carriers from behind. Lots of hustle. Could stand to add a good deal of bulk to his rangy frame. Can be stood up, and has trouble shedding blockers who get into his pads. Occasionally takes himself out of the play by getting too far upfield. He's the grandson of Ugandan prime minister Benedicto Kiwanuka, who was assassinated in 1972 by Idi Amin.

DARRYL TAPP , Virginia Tech, 6-1.5, 256 -- Shorter than ideal, but his strength and low center of gravity help him get leverage. Sound all-around fundamentals. Hard worker who recognizes the run quickly. Plays well against the run and has shown the ability to hit hard and cause fumbles. Decent at shedding blocks. Has good pass-rushing moves, but will find it harder to turn the corner or penetrate to the inside against NFL linemen, especially big ones who could engulf him.

TAMBA HALI , Penn State, 6-2.5, 263 -- Short but powerful player with a strong upper body and the agility to elude the first punch of offensive tackles. Very sharp at diagnosing plays early, he will make plays in pursuit. Big tackles, however, could swallow him up. He's quick, but not necessarily fast. Had a tendency to disappear in some games.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

-- Ray Edwards , Purdue. Another possible convert to OLB in a 3-4 defense, he could stay at DE if he adds some bulk. Inconsistent.

-- Mark Anderson , Alabama. Could be a find. Long arms and strong upper body help keep blockers at bay. Speed helps with pursuit, but he needs time to gain weight and experience.

-- Parys Haralson , Tennessee. Undersized, but savvy. If he doesn't convert to OLB, he could be a liability versus the run, but still useful as a pass rusher.

-- Victor Adeyanju , Indiana. A formidable but raw talent, he could bulk up and dominate with the right coaching. Bats down lots of passes.

-- Elvis Dumervil , Louisville. Had 20 sacks in a senior season that was a star turn, but he's just short of 6- feet and projects to probably a situational pass rusher in the pros.

Tackles

HALOTI NGATA , Oregon, 6-4.25, 338, junior -- An immovable object, he can hold his ground against double teams, and sometimes still make the play. Could be an excellent pocket-collapsing bull rusher and run-stuffer. Shows surprising mobility and can even drop into coverage in zone blitz schemes. Can rely too often on his brute strength and allow technique to break down. Occasionally takes plays off. Can be stood up if he gets tired and plays too high. Possibly only a two-down player. Some durability concerns.

BRODRICK BUNKLEY , Florida State, 6-2.5, 304 -- A versatile defensive tackle who can rush the passer and stuff the run. Not particularly fast, but is quick and can usually gain leverage at the point of attack. Also good at keeping free of blockers. He's a bit undersized, and probably fits best in a one-gap scheme. Maturity and character are question marks for him, as is durability.

CLAUDE WROTEN , LSU, 6-2, 302 -- Explosive and strong, he's an excellent tackler who forces more than his share of fumbles. Praised for his tenacity and "motor," he's another good fit for a one-gap scheme. Can shove linemen back on their heels and collapse the pocket. Could stand to add leg strength and some pass-rush moves. Struggles to disengage once blocked. Teams could be scared off by a marijuana arrest in January, but charges were dropped.

GABE WATSON , Michigan, 6-3.5, 336 -- Mammoth yet nimble NT prospect who can collapse the pocket and wreak havoc when fresh and draw double teams at almost all times. Good gap-clogger who can steer backs to the outside for aggressive LBs. As a pass rusher he's limited, but can drive the center backward. He's not particularly quick to diagnose the play. Can be disruptive, but mostly between the tackles. Teams drafting him will have to be prepared to hound him about conditioning, and possibly sub for him on third down.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

-- Rodrique Wright , Texas. Big and quick when he's fresh, but consistency and stamina are concerns. All the natural tools are there.

-- John McCargo , N.C. State. Undersized, but has the raw material to become a disruptive one-gap tackle. Good intelligence and work ethic.

-- Orien Harris , Miami. A bull-rushing type who can hold his ground against double teams. More of a clogger than a pass rusher.

-- Kyle Williams , LSU. Makes the most of limited physical gifts. Played a game in 2004 after suffering a compound fracture to his hand in warmups.

LINEBACKERS

POSITION OUTLOOK: Possibly the deepest position in the draft, especially at outside linebacker. A.J. Hawk is the class of the group, but Ernie Sims, Chad Greenway and even Hawk's Ohio State teammate, Bobby Carpenter, could all come off the board in the first round. There are some possible gems at inside linebacker, too, but most of the value comes outside. The first day could have 10 LBs taken.

A.J. HAWK , Ohio State, 6-1, 248 -- Top linebacker in the draft, Hawk is a complete, sideline-to-sideline player. Quick to diagnose a play, he uses superior speed and block-shedding ability to run down the ball carrier. An excellent tackler, he takes good angles and rarely overpursues. Can be a disruptive pass rusher, too. Mostly an outside LB, he has some experience playing inside. Could stand to add leg strength. Is quick in a straight line, but loses speed when turning to pursue or cover RBs who can run routes well. Could be neutralized by strong fullbacks. Should come off the board early in the first round.

ERNIE SIMS , Florida State, 5-11.25, 234 -- Aggressive, but undersized. He's fast and shows good pursuit angles and natural instincts. Big hitter. Makes excellent plays in pass coverage, and has good hands and ball skills. Should be able to stick with most RBs and TEs in man coverage. Tendency to avoid blockers can leave him out of position. Not much of a pass rusher. Needs to add bulk.

CHAD GREENWAY , Iowa, 6-2.5, 240 -- The team that misses out on Hawk will do OK to take Greenway. He's slightly bigger, not quite as fast or as strong, but comparable in every other way. He's probably better than Hawk in pass coverage, with excellent instincts and a nose for the ball. Good tackler. Relentless pass rusher. Occasionally takes himself out of the play by sidestepping blockers. Needs to add strength, especially in the lower body, which should improve his ability to shed blockers.

BOBBY CARPENTER , Ohio State, 6-2.5, 256 -- Shows nice upside, especially as a pass defender. Matches up well and has good range and speed. Against the run, he tackles well, but struggles to avoid blockers and can be stood up. Versatile, but probably projects best as an outside linebacker for a 3-4 team, which would take best advantage of his fluidity and athleticism. A good open-field tackler, but not a particularly devastating hitter, he can be overwhelmed by blockers in the running game.

D'QWELL JACKSON , Maryland, 6-0.5, 230 -- Top ILB prospect, Jackson is quick and silky-smooth when changing direction or blanketing an RB or TE in pass coverage. Not super-fast, but has plenty of quickness and takes good angles to the ball. Is comfortable and natural as a pass rusher. His lack of size and lower body strength could mean that the league's better fullbacks can neutralize him. Lacks ideal size, and has some durability concerns after wrist surgery and a leg injury last season.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

-- Abdul Hodge , Iowa. Pretty good year for LBs in the Big Ten. Hodge will probably be the second MLB taken. Technically sound, he's a touch undersized, but is good at shedding blockers. Could struggle in coverage.

-- DeMeco Ryans , Alabama. Another possible first-round pick, Ryans is a notch below the other top LBs due to less-than-ideal speed and size. Good instincts, especially as a pass rusher.

-- Rocky McIntosh , Miami. Physical specimen who needs to learn to shed blocks better. Some upside as a pass rusher and in coverage, but is probably best against the run.

-- Thomas Howard , UTEP. A hard hitter with plenty of size and speed, but he needs to diagnose the play faster and learn to dismiss blockers rather than run around them.

-- Kai Parham , Virginia. Big and powerful, he's a beast against the run who showed some improvement in blitz packages late in his career. Speed and agility will be limitations in coverage and against quick backs.

-- Tim Dobbins , Iowa State. He's quick to read plays, but sometimes bites on fakes. A ferocious run-stopper in the open field, but he struggles in traffic.

CORNERBACKS

POSITION OUTLOOK: Another candidate for deepest position in the draft, the second half of the first round could be jammed with cornerback picks. Two players, Michael Huff of Texas and Jimmy Williams of Virginia Tech, are big enough to be taken as safeties, but still fast enough to stay at cornerback. After those two, there's a glut of talented players -- four or five CBs could easily be taken in the first round.

JIMMY WILLIAMS , Virginia Tech, 6-2, 216 -- Like Texas' Michael Huff, has the size to play safety and the speed to play cornerback, although he probably alienated some teams with his attitude in interviews at combine. Also, his stock was hurt by a poor on-campus workout. Can disrupt and dominate receivers in man coverage. Is less effective in zone coverage, and can be caught peeking into the backfield and keying off the QB. Can turn on a dime and explode to the ball. A former safety, he is an asset in run support.

JOHNATHAN JOSEPH , South Carolina, 5-11, 189, junior -- An enticing but raw prospect. Very fast and athletic, can turn and run quickly and close on the receiver once the ball is in the air. A broken foot in 2004 means he has only one season as a starter in D-I, so there could be lot of room for improvement -- but health will be a concern. Is a decent tackler in run support. Needs to improve consistency in his technique and learn when to gamble.

TYE HILL , Clemson, 5-9.5, 185 -- Quick and fast, he's probably the best CB suited to zone coverage in the draft. Also excels at man coverage, easily turning and running with the fastest receivers. A former running back and track star, he's one of the fastest players in the draft. Lack of size may keep him from being the kind of cornerback who is assigned to another team's top receiver, but he should be able to shut down receivers who don't tower over him.

ASHTON YOUBOTY , Ohio State, 5-11.75, junior -- He's a touch raw, but all the tools are there. His frame could take some added size, which would improve his play against the run. Lots of speed, and he changes directions well. A good candidate to become a lockdown man-to-man cornerback, but he needs to improve his ability to read plays and react, rather than gambling, as he does too often now.

ANTONIO CROMARTIE , Florida State, 6-2.25, 203, junior -- A potential boom-or-bust pick, he sat out the 2005 season with a torn knee ligament. Has raw talent in buckets, with plenty of speed to go along with his size. Excellent leaper, he has long arms and can reach the ball in traffic. A former WR with above-average hands. Occasionally relies too much on natural ability, needs to improve his technique and learn to anticipate routes better.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

-- Richard Marshall , Fresno State. A playmaker -- when he reads the play in time. Quick to change directions and should be able to stick with most NFL receivers.

-- Kelly Jennings , Miami. Smooth and quick to react, he could stand to get bigger and stronger. Needs to improve his technique in bump-and-run coverage. Skilled tackler.

-- Alan Zemaitis , Penn State. An excellent open-field tackler who has proven himself in run support. Not great when he has to mix it up with receivers, he might be a candidate to switch to free safety.

-- Cedric Griffin , Texas. Big and physical, he bats a lot of passes with his long arms. A good tackler, he could contribute on special teams. Slow to turn and run with receivers.

-- Devin Hester , Miami. Burner who gained notoriety with big returns in college. Lacks experience on defense or offense, but his speed is tough to pass on. High risk-reward potential.

SAFETIES

POSITION OUTLOOK: Not a particularly deep group, especially if you count Huff as a cornerback. Teams looking for run-supporting DBs will have few players to pick from, but most NFL teams are concerned with shutting down the passing game. Lots of chancy picks here, but some teams should be able to find good value.

MICHAEL HUFF , Texas, 5-11.75, 198 -- An impressive physical specimen with the speed to play cornerback, but the size and strength to play safety. NFL teams are split over where to play him, but regardless, he'll be one of the fastest players taken, and he'll be gone early. He's got excellent closing speed to make up for his slow-to-turn hips, and is quick to read plays. Excellent run-stopper. If he plays safety, he might be overmatched at times, but will be an asset because of his versatility.

KO SIMPSON , South Carolina, 6-1, 203, junior -- Lots of risk-reward potential. Excellent playmaker who can match up even with bigger receivers. Can be a hard hitter in run support and is an excellent open-field tackler, which should help him contribute on special teams. Could fill out some. Is known to bite on the play fake. Struggled with academics throughout college, and his play-recognition skills need some work.

JASON ALLEN , Tennessee, 6-0.75, 213 -- Would be a nice counter to have against big, physical receivers, because of his leaping ability and long arms. Has experience playing nearly everywhere in the secondary, and has shown ability to stop the run and shed blockers in the box as well as turn and run with receivers in the slot. Had dislocated hip early last season. If the hip doesn't hold him back, he'll be a nice asset obtained for a discount.

DARNELL BING , Southern California, 6-3.75, 225, junior -- Big and fast, he's not as agile as some of the other top DBs, and probably does his best work against the run. Can fight off blockers in traffic to make a play on the ball carrier. Can make big hits, especially on WRs coming over the middle. Quick WRs will probably always blow past him, but there's room to improve play-recognition skills, especially when it comes to play fakes.

DONTE WHITNER , Ohio State, 5-10, 204, junior -- Can make plays all over the field, including as a pass rusher. Reckless with his body in run support. Excellent in deep coverage, he played strong safety in college, but at his size is more likely to be a free safety in the NFL. A good open-field tackler, he should contribute on special teams. Needs to learn to diagnose plays quicker and add some bulk. Can get pushed around by blockers. Only one full season as a starter.

OTHERS TO WATCH:

-- Danieal Manning , Abilene Christian. Versatile DB who has seen time at cornerback. Good against the run in the open field and can stay with quick receivers. Slippery returner. A tad undersized. The main doubts center on level of competition in college.

-- Patrick Watkins , Florida State. Good head for the game, fluid, speedy. Adjusts to the ball well, but needs to add size and strength, as well as his recognition skills.

-- Daniel Bullocks , Nebraska. Big, hard-hitting strong safety who struggles some in pass coverage, especially in man-to-man situations. Good instincts.

-- Bernard Pollard , Purdue. Big, but a bit awkward in man coverage. Good nose for the ball in run support.

KICKERS

-- Conner Hughes , Virginia. Accurate and consistent, especially from 40 yards and closer. Good mechanics, but unlikely to be a contributor on kickoffs. Made all 36 extra points last season.

-- Jonathan Scifres , Missouri State. Good leg strength, but erratic production in college. Experienced as a punter, too.

-- Josh Huston , Ohio State. Potential kickoff specialist, he has a powerful leg, showed some accuracy in his sole season as a starter.

-- Stephen Gostkowski , Memphis. Consistent, four-year starter. A good all-around athlete, he pitched for Memphis' baseball team, too. Made all 10 of his FG attempts from beyond 40 yards last season, including three from 50 or longer.

PUNTERS

-- Ryan Plackemeier , Wake Forest. Inconsistent, but with good potential. Mechanics need work, but if refined, his big body (6-3) will be a big plus. Potential as a kickoff specialist, as well.

-- John Torp , Colorado. Has shown good leg strength and the ability to pin opponents deep. Although he benefited from altitude, he usually outpunted his counterpart in home games. Left-footed.

-- Joel Stelly , Louisiana-Monroe. Good under pressure and from his own end zone. Superior leg strength. Occasionally outkicks his coverage, needs to improve hang time.

-- Tom Malone , Southern California. Lots of natural punting ability, with a quick release. Trojans offense has limited his opportunities.

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