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ESPN Insider: UT's Wright leads solid DT class

Fifty Gut

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By Todd McShay, Scouts Inc.

If Demarcus Ware (Cowboys) and Shawne Merriman (Chargers) count as outside linebackers, the position both rookies currently play in the NFL, the 2005 draft did not see a defensive lineman come off the board in the first 15 selections.

Florida State DT Travis Johnson (Texans) was the first, at pick No. 16, and only five other defensive linemen followed him in the the first round. While the 2006 defensive line class does not compare to the record-setting group in 2003 (11 first-round picks), it has potential to be a much more fruitful class than last year's, with as many as nine players hoping to be selected in the first round.

As far as the seniors are concerned, Boston College DE Mathias Kiwanuka remains the premier defensive line prospect. Kiwanuka has been a bit overwhelmed versus constant double-team attention this season and also has been battling through a lingering MCL sprain (knee) that stemmed from a chop-block he took against Virginia. However, Kiwanuka's past productivity and exceptional combination of size, speed and athletic ability give him the edge over the rest of the competition.

After Kiwanuka at the DE position, Florida State's Kamerion Wimbley, Penn State's Tamba Hali and Louisville's Elvis Dumervil are all potential first-round selections. Wimbley has always had the explosive athletic ability to emerge as a top pick, but it took until his senior season for him to put it all together. With seven sacks in as many games, Wimbley is soaring up the draft board.


Hali lacks the size and speed of Kiwanuka and Wimbley but plays with a non-stop motor and great instincts, quickness and power. To this point, no player in the 2006 draft has improved his stock as much as Dumervil. With 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles in seven games, Dumervil is chasing NCAA records in both categories and is drawing comparisons to Dwight Freeney (Colts) from NFL personnel officials along the way.

The senior defensive tackle class does not have the elite prospects that the DE group boasts, but there could be more DTs taken by the end of Round 1. As it stands right now, Texas' Rodrique Wright, LSU's Claude Wroten, Michigan's Gabe Watson and Tennessee's Jesse Mahelona are all being considered in the bottom-half of the first round or early in the second round. Wright has always had the most talent in this class, but his inconsistent effort has frustrated his college coaches and NFL scouts.

Wright's nickname tells the entire story. His teammates dubbed him "Chip," because he is notorious for "cashing in his chips" early during offseason workouts. Watson is something of a similar prospect, as his massive frame gives him great upside to play a two-gap NT role in the NFL, but his stamina and consistency are so poor that head coach Lloyd Carr even benched the senior earlier this season.

Wroten does not possess the same natural tools as Wright or Watson, but his motor, technique, instincts and explosive initial power and quickness make him the best one-gap DT prospect in this class. Mahelona shares similar skills with Wroten, but the Hawaii native and former JUCO-transfer is not nearly as polished.

The junior class is not as strong along the defensive line as it is at most other positions, but N.C. State DE Mario Williams, Oregon DT Haloti Ngata and Purdue DE Ray Edwards will all warrant first-round consideration should they elect to depart following this season.

Williams is the best prospect of the three and could emerge as the top defensive linemen on the board in 2006. He has not been as productive this season as he was in 2004 (57 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and six sacks), but much of that can be attributed to the massive amount of attention he has received from opposing offenses. Williams has a rare combination of size (6-6, 285) and athletic ability and projects as a play-making traditional defensive end in an NFL 4-3 scheme.

Ngata is unpolished and can be inconsistent, but his massive size (6-4, 340) and explosive power give him great value as a two-gap DT and/or NT in the NFL. Edwards, like Williams, has struggled to match his 2004 production (eight sacks) with so much attention being placed on him this season, but the 6-5, 270-pound rush-end has an outstanding blend of size-potential, speed and athletic ability.

Finally, a few other underclassmen to keep an eye out for include Michigan DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, Miami DT Baraka Atkins, Georgia DE Quentin Moses, and Oklahoma DT Larry Birdine.

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