Draft Preview: Linebackers
Hawk, Sims headline exceptional group
Green Bay - Ohio State's A.J. Hawk has the edge on Florida State's Ernie Sims by one year of age, 2 inches of height and 15 pounds of muscle.
It's the best draft for linebackers since 2000, when six were taken in the first round, and the margin among the leading men is narrower than one might guess.
"Who's the better defensive player, Hawk or Sims?" Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian said. "I'd make it on a very, very slim margin for Hawk only because he's bigger, but that's only for the draft. I saw Hawk live against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and came away incredibly impressed, but Ernie Sims may come in here as a 10-year all-pro."
If Sims does turn out to be like Derrick Brooks, the eight-time Pro Bowl player for Tampa Bay to whom he is most often compared, what would that leave on the horizon for Hawk?
"I've always compared Hawk to Randy Gradishar," Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo said. "Hawk's a great player. He's great. How do people not take him?"
Gradishar, another former Buckeyes middle linebacker, made the Pro Bowl seven times during a 10-year career with Denver from 1974-'83.
"Hawk's better than Gradishar," said one personnel man who has spent a lifetime in coaching and scouting. "He's a little bit like (Ray) Nitschke from Illinois. In a way, Hawk is just as vicious. He just doesn't signify and testify it, growl and scowl. When Hawk tackles, he hurts your (bleep)."
For a modern-day comparison, scouts bring up Chicago's Brian Urlacher. Several say that Hawk will play with the same astonishing sideline-to-sideline speed that is the hallmark of Urlacher's game.
"If you were making a movie you'd cast him as the linebacker," said Rich Snead, director of player personnel for the Tennessee Titans. Snead said Hawk was better coming out than Keith Brooking and way better than Jonathan Vilma and James Farrior.
Said Snead: "He's not (Junior) Seau. Seau was phenomenal. He's not as good as Cornelius Bennett. But he's the one guy I've seen in a long time that knocks people back when he tackles them."
"Hawk might be the safest pick in the draft," Philadelphia Eagles GM Tom Heckert said. "We can't find any holes. He's 6-1. Maybe that's it. So what? I think you could take him anywhere."
Hawk might just become the "awesome player" that San Diego general manager A.J. Smith expects him to be, but the tape-viewing room at Florida State made for even more eagerly awaited viewing for scouts last fall than the one at Ohio State.
"Sims is probably my favorite player in the draft as far as watching him play," Buffalo national scout Marc Ross said. "I've never seen a player who plays more relentlessly without regard for his body than this guy. I say ever. Hawk plays his (bleep) off. Vilma played hard. But this guy is crazy. I mean, he is absolutely nuts when he plays."
No first-round linebacker in the last 15 years has been as short as Sims, who measured 5 feet 11 1 /8 inch at the combine. The other glaring negative on Sims is the fact he suffered five concussions in college.
"He can bring the heat like I haven't seen in a long time," one personnel director said. "But the concussions scare the (bleep) out of me."
As admired and as good as Sims has a chance to be, the fact that Hawk captured 19 of 21 first-place votes as the No. 1 linebacker in a Journal Sentinel poll of personnel people reflects the dominance most scouts see in him.
"If he slipped to us, I'd celebrate until we got to camp," said Tom Modrak, the Buffalo Bills assistant GM who will help his team make the eighth pick. "He plays so hard and he's so smart and he wants to be good. His impact won't be only on the field. I think he'll be a presence on your team."
The 21 scouts were asked to rank the linebackers on a 1-to-5 basis, with a first-place vote worth five points and so on. Nine players received votes, and estimates are that up to 20 could be selected in the first three rounds.
Hawk had 103 points (his two non-firsts were seconds) compared to 79 for Sims, who was left off the ballot by one scout who said he "can't get off a block." Next, in order, were Chad Greenway with 34 points, Demeco Ryans with 25, Thomas Howard with 19, D'Qwell Jackson and Roger "Rocky" McIntosh with 17, Bobby Carpenter with 16 and Clint Ingram with five.
"The draft is so thin in other places that there may be a run on them," Modrak said. "There will be some good players in the second and third rounds, and in the second day. It's an abnormal year."