- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

The bar has been set for this year’s crop of rookie linebackers. Maryland’s Shawne Merriman went No. 12 to San Diego last year, played 15 games and had 10 sacks to earn the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award and start in the Pro Bowl.

Could a linebacker in this weekend’s draft make a Merriman-type impact?

“There’s one guy who can and he’s right down the street from us and his initials are A.J.,” Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel said of Ohio State’s A.J. Hawk. “That guy’s a playmaker and he runs all over the place. He’s got size, speed and produces.”

Alas, Hawk will be gone by the time Cleveland picks at No. 12. Hawk is expected to be picked by Green Bay with the fifth selection.

The run on outside linebackers in the first round will also include Iowa’s Chad Greenway and Florida State’s Ernie Sims and possibly Hawk’s Buckeyes teammate, Bobby Carpenter.

If Hawk goes to Green Bay, he will join rare company. Only 15 outside linebackers have gone in the top five since 1982 and none have gone in the top 10 since 2001, when Redskins newcomer Andre Carter was the seventh pick by San Francisco.

“Linebackers can have an impact on teams and you can name four or five in the league that are clearly players that opposing teams have to watch out for,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. “Defensive linemen normally get a little bit more publicity but I think if you have a chance to draft a good, solid, core-type guy, you better take him.”

A three-year starter at Ohio State, Hawk (6-foot-1, 248 pounds) warrants an exception to the recent trend of not taking a linebacker in the top 10. He had 106, 141 and 121 tackles, respectively, the last three years and also had 9.5 sacks last seasons.

“It’s definitely a position where teams say they don’t draft people too high because they don’t think they can make much of an impact,” Hawk said. “But guys like Shawne Merriman and [Seattle Pro Bowl player] Lofa Tatupu had huge years.

“It’s understandable because we’re not big defensive ends who are going to get 15-18 sacks a year and we’re not going to be a running back who gets 1,500 yards rushing.”

Hawk expects to play inside on a 3-4 alignment and got experience at both positions with Ohio State.

The Browns could still go outside linebacker at No. 12 and choose Greenway, who had seasons of 132, 113 and 156 tackles as an Iowa starter. Greenway wasn’t highly recruited out of high school — he played 9-man football in Mount Vernon, S.D., and his graduating class was 29. If not for the Hawkeyes, he would have attended a Division II school.

“It’s been a long road and I’ve had some uphill battles,” Greenway said. “I got the one Division I offer coming out of high school and then I tore my ACL as a freshman.”

Sims is the only early entry among the top outside linebackers — he left Florida State following a 72-tackle season. One of the nation’s top recruits coming out of high school, Sims (5-113/4, 231) could be targeted by Minnesota or New England.

Sims’ father played football at Florida State and his mother ran track.

“Ernie is the most explosive, through-the-hips athlete in this draft,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “Everybody has A.J. Hawk penciled in but I think Sims has the most upside of any linebacker in the draft. … He’s an explosive hitter and he can make the kind of impact that Derrick Brooks or Jonathan Vilma did.”

If the Patriots don’t select Sims, they could pick Carpenter to replace Willie McGinest.

The first round will be heavy with outside linebackers but Maryland inside backer D’Qwell Jackson could sneak in the late first round and will probably be the first ILB selected. Jackson had three seasons with 120-plus tackles.

“When I watch him on tape, I think he’s a first round pick,” Mayock said. “His stock has fallen a little bit because he didn’t run that well, but I see a football player. He’s athletic enough as an inside linebacker to stay on the field in nickel situations. He’s the kind of guy that I think could come in and play really well early for a team.”

Another local product, Virginia’s Ahmad Brooks, who played at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, will have to wait for the supplemental draft after the Cavaliers dismissed him from the team at the start of spring practice.

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