Norm Chow looked at the tackle he left behind at USC, and he saw a player ripe with possibility.
"An athlete is an athlete, and Winston Justice is that," the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator said at USC's pro day on April 2. "Left tackle, right tackle – he can play anywhere you want to put him. As an athlete, you can't put those limits on him."
That may not be an assessment shared by every team in the NFL, but it's clearly a perception that has picked up steam.
Once projected to be a tackle bound for the mid-to-late first round, Justice has seen a spike in his stock since the scouting combine in February. Questions about character issues have evaporated, and the remaining vacuum has been filled with rave reviews.
"He's going to be a great tackle for whoever gets him," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said. "I think he's shown more than teams expected going into [the evaluation process]."
In the realm of numbers, Justice hasn't disappointed, out-measuring every tackle in the draft in almost every category – even Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who is widely considered a top-five pick. But there aren't pro days and stopwatches for character, and getting over some of Justice's red flags has had little to do with what he's done on the field.
His experience at the combine was a never-ending inquisition about a single incident at USC – one that caused Justice's suspension for the entire 2004 season. If having to sit out the Trojans' second national championship season wasn't grueling enough, Justice learned a much more humbling penance: explaining to 20 different teams why it happened.
Justice was suspended and placed on probation because he pulled a replica gun on another student. He consistently termed the incident as a joke gone awry, playing a prank on someone he mistakenly thought was an acquaintance. Justice spent the year taking boxing lessons, tempering his disappointment and preparing for a banner 2005.
"I made a mistake, and I paid for it," Justice said. "Now a lot of it has been showing teams what kind of person I am."
Despite bulking up to 320 pounds at his pro day, Justice blew scouts away by running what would have been a sub-five-second 40-yard dash had he not pulled up with a tight hamstring at the 35-yard mark.
"The overall package of what he did was eye-opening," Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "The bench (38 repetitions of 225 pounds) and vertical (39 inches) were outstanding.
"I think when you talk about the best players – not just the best tackles, but the best players – he deserves to be put up there."
MORE IMPACT OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
Here are five more difference-making offensive linemen:
D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia – He was one of college football's best tackles from the time he stepped in as a freshman starter, and his strengths are his sound technique and good feet. Cut in the mold of a Jordan Gross or Lomas Brown, Ferguson bulked up to 312 pounds at the combine, but was back down to 305 at his pro day. Scouts think he could get to 315 to 320 without it affecting his game, but that may not be necessary.
Marcus McNeill, OT, Auburn – One of the massive maulers at tackle, McNeill blocked for three of last year's first-round picks and went 43 consecutive games without allowing a sack. He showed some toughness in the Capital One Bowl this year by playing with a broken hand. The biggest worry is keeping McNeill's weight down, which can affect his performance against quicker players.
Nick Mangold, C, Ohio State – Easily the best center in the draft, Mangold registered good combine and pro day performances, establishing himself as a legitimate first-round talent. He's quick and athletic and can play with a bit of a mean streak. Scouts think Mangold will have to get a bit bigger at the NFL level, raising his playing weight from 300 pounds to somewhere between 310 and 315.
Eric Winston, OT, Miami – A former tight end, Winston has some of the best feet in this year's offensive tackle class. He made the position switch as a true sophomore and started an impressive 13 games. But he still has a tight end type of body, and could stand to gain more weight to fill into his position. Scouts say he should continue to get better as he refines as an offensive tackle. Winston tore an ACL his junior season but rebounded to earn All-American honors as a senior.
Davin Joseph, OG, Oklahoma – Joseph became a full-time starter as a sophomore and started 38 games at guard and one at tackle. An adept space-clearing guard who was worthy of All-American consideration as a senior, he's more of a leverage player than one that gets the job done with pure upper-body strength.
- Winston Justice