Best of the bunch

Charles Robinson

More combine – Notebook: Settling the score with Vince

INDIANAPOLIS – When the question was asked, it was as if A.J. Hawk was taken aback – insulted, even. But considering the hopscotch that most top prospects do over the NFL's scouting combine drills, it was a natural assumption the All-American linebacker from Ohio State might blow off his workouts, too.

So onlookers wondered: Would he show scouts his skills?

"Of course," Hawk said. "I'm coming here to do everything. I'm going to compete and do every drill I can. If people have questions, they can come watch Tuesday when I'm running."

It was a refreshing moment, considering most of the No. 1 players on positional draft boards have shunned the combine's drills. And in a way, it typified the blue-collar nature of Hawk and this year's linebacker class – which might be the draft's richest position across the board.

"This is probably as strong a linebacker group as we've had in a while – I think from the senior crop and the junior crop," said Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, whose team could be looking for a linebacker on the first day of the draft.

"There seem to be good guys coming out of good D-I programs that are going to end up in the third, fourth and fifth round," Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. "There's enough guys out there that you could find a good, solid, young player that's going to develop that may vie for some playing time. Not just on special teams, but in a nickel package as a key backup. You could find that guy all the way into the fifth round."

Along with the Titans, a slew of teams will be reaping the benefits of that quality and depth. Not only will the productive players last well into the draft's second day, but there is upper-tier talent at the top.

As many as five outside linebackers could go in the first round – Hawk, Iowa's Chad Greenway, Florida State's Ernie Sims, Alabama's DeMeco Ryans and Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter. That's a dream for the half-dozen teams that have linebacker needs at the top of their offseason list.

But precious few of those needy squads will get a shot at the player who's overwhelmingly considered the best of the bunch. When you ask coaches and personnel people who that is – the one with potential Shawne Merriman impact – there's little deviation in their answers.

"There's one guy," Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "… He's right down the street (from Cleveland) in Columbus. The initials are A.J.

"Coach (Jim) Tressel (at Ohio State) was telling me he has a center and a wide receiver and some defensive backs – a lot of good players. But (Hawk) is a playmaker. He runs all over the place, and he runs to the ball. He's got some size, some speed, some production. I like all of those things."

That's high praise from a coach who guided a dominant group of linebackers with the New England Patriots, and is in the process of building his linebacking corps from the ground up in Cleveland. Hawk would be an ideal fit on the outside for the Browns, but he's not expected to last beyond the Green Bay Packers' pick at No. 5 or the San Francisco 49ers' at No. 6.

"Players are players, and if you get a chance to get a great player, you get the great player," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "I don't think you focus too much on what position. Linebackers can have an impact on teams. Obviously, you can name four or five in the league that are clearly the guys that opposing teams have to watch out for."

Some scouts feel Hawk could fit that mold. He has size (6-foot-1, 248 pounds) and is expected to run his 40-yard dash in the 4.5-second range. He also has the flexibility to play all three linebacker spots in a 4-3 defense, though many scouts believe he's best suited on the weak side. He can be a top-notch blitzer and effective in the passing lanes. He's fluid, has a bit of nastiness, can take on and shed blockers and is tough enough to hit and jam a hole at the line of scrimmage.

"He's got the speed to always be in a play," Purdue tight end Jeff Davis said. "Even if he's on the other side (of the field), he's got the speed to cover that ground. He can probably help out and cover the slot sometimes because he's a good athlete – he's that fast."

That skill set made Hawk a starter as a sophomore – a year when he led the Buckeyes in tackles with 106 and helped them win a national championship. By the time he finished his junior season, Hawk was a consensus All-American, and most thought he would be a top-15 pick in the 2005 draft. But he chose to return to school and finished with one of the best defensive seasons in Ohio State history – 121 tackles, 16½ tackles for a loss and 9½ sacks.

"I had a great four years there – I had great coaches," Hawk said. "The best thing about being there, the older guys would come back and let us know how they did things and how to handle yourself on and off the field.

"(Chris) Spielman is always around. … Randy Gradishar was an honorary captain for a game my junior year. Mike Vrabel is always back working out with us. Andy Katzenmoyer – the list goes on. There's a bunch of guys. Pepper Johnson is coaching in the league now. There's so many great players that have been at Ohio State who have helped me out."

Now it's up to Hawk to live up to his big-time billing. He's expected to leave the combine having interviewed with as many as 14 teams, and some think he even has a shot to supplant North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams as the draft's No. 1 defensive prospect. And he's not waiting to find out.

"I was anxious to get here," Hawk said. "Once your bowl game is over, this is what you work for, to come here. That's why I want to come here and compete. I don't want to delay it any longer and wait until my pro day to do everything. I'm ready to get back to doing some football-type things instead of working on mainly these drills. I'm excited.

"They gave us a little speech earlier saying, 'You've been working on the pro agility and the 40-yard dash, but the weekend after the draft (in the May minicamps) you're going to have to be able to play football. You're going to have to cover wideouts and do things. You can't lose yourself in all these drills. You have to still remember how to play football.' "

If anything, remembering how to play the game in a few months won't be Hawk's problem.

The real issue will be if he's willing to wait that long.