- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Because it was a toy gun that ended his 2004 season and not the real thing, USC offensive tackle Winston Justice has been able to keep his first-round status in tact for Saturday’s NFL Draft.

Justice missed out on the Trojans’ repeat national championship and quarterback Matt Leinart’s Heisman Trophy season when he pointed a toy gun at a moving car.

“Watching them win was really hard and it kind of makes you wonder, ‘Do they really need me? Should I come back to SC when they won without me?’ ” he said. “But I made a good choice.”

The Trojans went 12-1 with Justice last year, losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl. Justice started all 13 games, but his play was in the background of Leinart and Reggie Bush.

Saturday, he’ll have to take a back seat to D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the Virginia left tackle who started all 49 games of his college career and won’t be around after the first handful of picks. Unless the New York Jets throw a curveball and take a quarterback — rendering the Patrick Ramsey trade a waste — Ferguson could be headed home to Long Island as the fourth pick.

Ferguson and Justice are the top two linemen in an otherwise weak offensive line class.

Justice’s destination is more complicated. Philadelphia could use a tackle for the future. Arizona’s offensive line was wretched last year. And trades could further muddle things.

Justice was on the fast track to the NFL before he was suspended by coach Pete Carroll before the 2004 season.

“Me and some friends were playing a game,” he said. “We thought we knew the person in the car so we pulled the toy gun on them. That wasn’t them. It’s something I’ll always regret doing and something I’ll always be sorry about. But it’s in the past.”

Justice was peppered with questions about the incident, but that’s fine with him.

“It gave me a chance to tell my side of the story,” he said.

Depending on who picks him, Justice could be switching sides of the line — from right tackle to left tackle. Justice said his return to USC — he could have turned pro last year — was beneficial on and off the field.

“It was very important to show people that I do have good character and came back to school and proved that I was a good student and a good citizen,” he said.

As high draft picks, Ferguson and Justice could be in for a reality check as rookie starters.

“It’s very difficult to make the transition, whether it’s left tackle or right tackle,” New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “People want to say that, as a left tackle, you face a speed rusher and at right tackle, you’re faced with a bigger person. But that’s not the case today.

“The defensive end you’re involved with, the speed of the game, the sophisticated, last-second decisions the player confronts — all those things make it a difficult decision.”

It can be done, though. Last year, three of the four rookie offensive linemen drafted in the first round — including two tackles — started a majority of their team’s games: New England guard Logan Mankins (16 starts), New Orleans tackle Jamaal Brown (13) and St. Louis tackle Alex Barron (11).

Washington Redskins tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels started every game they played as rookies.

Justice has hinted in recent weeks that not only will he be ready to start right away, he might be the best tackle in the draft.

Told of Justice’s bravado, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said: “With all due respect to him, he didn’t prove it on a snap-by-snap basis throughout his career. He’s every bit as talented physically as Ferguson, but he’s inconsistent and has a certain amount of immaturity about him right now.

“For him to thrive, he needs to get an offensive line coach that gets on his butt daily and demands perfection because he’s a talented, talented kid, but hasn’t shown it on a consistent basis.”

After Ferguson and Justice, things get murky.

Auburn tackle Marcus McNeil is a stronger run blocker than pass blocker, but his size (6-7, 337) is enticing to teams. Miami tackle Eric Winston will be two years off a knee injury when training camp starts.

Before his injury in October 2004, Winston was on his way to being a first-round pick. He came back last year to start 12 games, but his mobility was limited because of the injury.

The guard and center positions are weak. Oklahoma’s Davin Joseph has enjoyed a strong pre-draft season and could be the first guard taken, albeit in the first round. The same goes for Ohio State center Nick Mangold, who will either be selected in the latter parts of the first round or early portion of the second round.

In the last 10 years, a combined 14 centers and guards have been first-round picks, compared with 33 tackles.

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