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More combine – Notebook: The great unknown?

INDIANAPOLIS – In a way, D'Brickashaw Ferguson has been living the documentary "Super Size Me" in reverse.

The Virginia offensive tackle has never been big enough for the NFL. He's never been a mauler. But only in the world of pro football can you weigh 300 pounds and still yearn for girth.

Until Thursday, that was the rap on Ferguson. Note the phrase – until Thursday. That's when Ferguson got on the scale, measured up and pulled something of a scouting combine miracle. It wasn't that he was 14 pounds heavier than what he weighed at the Senior Bowl last month. It was that he was 6-foot-6. That's a half-inch taller than what scouts measured him almost a month ago. In a city where NFL players seemingly shrink when they enter its limits, that's about as likely as hitting the lottery, being elected president and marrying Jennifer Lopez all on the same day.

"I might have grown," Ferguson said with a grin.

If his body is anything like his reputation, it's not all that unbelievable. Ferguson is far and away the class of a strong tackle crop – and if you believe some scouts and personnel people, the surest pick in the 2006 draft. He showed it during Senior Bowl practice week, where he routinely dominated every defensive end in drills and almost single-handedly knocked down the draft stock of Boston College's Mathias Kiwanuka.

Now, standing at a much more ideal 314 pounds, Ferguson's stock is rising again – even if his place in the draft can't go any higher. It's a long shot that he'll sneak past the likes of Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart or Vince Young, but unlike those players, nobody is talking about the risks weighing Ferguson down. Instead, he's described as one of the most technically sound pass blockers in the draft, despite the fact that he's hasn't been known to swallow opponents whole like many 330-pounders at his position.

"His style is a little bit different than maybe the Orlando Paces or Jonathan Ogdens or Tony Bosellis from a couple of years ago," Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "Those guys were really more of the dominant style player. I don't know that D'Brickashaw's style is that way. But I think he's going to be a very good left tackle.

"I know people had questions about whether he could get over 300. Well, he's (314) at the combine, so I think that probably solidifies him right at the top."

Not that he's alone. While Ferguson is clearly a cut above the rest of this year's tackles, it's an esteemed collection overall. As many as 10 could go in the first three rounds and as many as four could work their way into the first round, depending on workouts this week. And according to various personnel evaluations, all four potential first-rounders – Ferguson, USC's Winston Justice (6-6, 315), Auburn's Marcus McNeill (6-7½, 336) and Miami's Eric Winston (6-6½, 310) – have the talent to play on the left side, the offensive line's prestigious anchor position.

Remarkably, the group seems as filled with characters as it is with talent. Throughout Thursday, the tackles were the most personable – cracking jokes, sharing stories and engaging the people around them as if they had been in the league 10 years.

And many of them had interesting wrinkles. Ferguson, who has been a staple on the Virginia line since his days as a 260-pound freshman, got his first name from a priest in the 1983 miniseries "The Thorn Birds." Winston is a former tight end who still displays the footwork of his old position and is still improving at tackle. McNeill hasn't given up a sack since his freshman season at guard. ("I'm real disappointed about that," McNeill said half-jokingly.)

As it stands, it's Justice and McNeill who have a chance to move up the draft board. As many as eight teams could be looking for a tackle in the first round, and both Justice and McNeill could join Ferguson as projected rookie starters at left tackle. And we're not talking about just any college players, either. Justice protected the blindside of golden boy Matt Leinart last season, and McNeill helped protect three of last season's first-round picks – quarterback Jason Campbell and running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams.

"They brought a lot to the table so I think they owe me a lot of money," said McNeill, drawing a chorus of laughter from a throng of reporters. "I haven't received my check this year so I don't know what to say about that. … (Williams) needs to be doing something. He needs to be (lobbying for the Buccaneers to draft McNeill) or put some money in my pocket. He hasn't sent me anything. I had to struggle this year just like I did when he was broke with me."

Justice knows a little bit about struggling, too, having been suspended for the 2004 season by USC's student judiciary office for aiming a replica gun at another student. He spent the year boxing under acclaimed trainer Freddie Roach, dulling the sting of his suspension with regular workouts and sparring in the ring.

"It's something that I'm always going to regret doing," Justice said of the gun incident. "I'm always going to be sorry about it. And I'm always going to be kicking myself for it. But it's in the past. And I'm trying to live day by day to show people that I am a good character guy."

The character issue will be a constant question when Justice makes the rounds with teams. His talent, however, can't be doubted.

"He has the athletic ability to (play left tackle)," Savage said of Justice. "He played on the right side at USC because he was protecting Matt Leinart, a left-handed quarterback.

"It's difficult when you've played in a right-handed stance your whole life and then move over and have to play from the left side. That's something we'll have to determine this spring. I'm sure at the workout we'll get an opportunity to see him move out of that left-handed stance."

Several teams are believed to be eagerly anticipating that workout, including the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys – holders of the 15th, 16th and 18th picks, respectively. Like Ferguson at the Senior Bowl, Justice has the opportunity to solidify his status in the middle of the first round. And while that might mean someone missing out later in the round (like Tampa Bay at No. 23), there seems to be plenty of talent to go around.

As Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert opined, "You can get a good tackle throughout the first day of the draft, and maybe early the second day."

How far the talent at tackle stretches remains to be seen. But if this class is anything like its most esteemed star, it might arrive in April bigger than anyone expected.

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