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Tuesday, April 12, 2005
More first-round DEs wash out than succeed

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

For a prospect some scouts have suggested might be too short-armed to replicate his college stardom in the NFL, David Pollack has a reach that typically has been exceeded only by his grasp.

That is, his grasp – or, more accurately, his vise-like grip – on opposing quarterbacks.

He racked up a school-record 36 sacks, fourth-most in SEC history, in four seasons at Georgia. He posted 108 quarterback pressures, and even if that incredible number appears more than a little inflated by the friendly statisticians at Sanford Stadium, halve it and it would still be more than any of the other top defensive ends in the 2005 draft had.

David Pollack
David Pollack could be the first pass rusher off the board.

Pollack routinely authored huge, game-altering plays, as evidenced by four interceptions, seven forced fumbles and three recoveries. Fittingly, he culminated his college career with a quintessential Pollack moment, sacking Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco late in his team's Outback Bowl victory nearly four months ago, stripping the ball, then recovering the fumble at the Georgia 16-yard line to preserve the win.

Uh, did we mention that Pollack is the only two-time winner of the Ted Hendricks award as the nation's premier defensive end?

"I'd like to think that I finished up my career with an exclamation point," Pollack noted at the NFL scouting combine workouts two months ago, in discussing the game-securing play in the Outback Bowl.

True enough. But now, despite a sterling track record and a résumé that has established Pollack as one of the most celebrated defensive players in recent NCAA history, come all the question marks. And while the borderline-cocky Pollack bristles at those who wonder about his ability to transfer his big-play acumen to the NFL, and feigns shock that anyone might doubt him, the questions are justifiable.

Not just about Pollack, but about all the defensive end prospects in this draft, especially given the spotty success rate for first-round selections at the position.

During a career in which he joined the legendary Herschel Walker as Georgia's only three-time consensus All-Americans, Pollack reached for greatness and achieved it. But when it comes to the defensive end position, the term reach has often assumed a different, and far more negative connotation.

In their zeal to secure young edge pass rushers, franchises have consistently reached at the position, dipping down on their draft boards and pulling up lesser-rated prospects, in essence gambling that they might hit on a defender capable of knocking quarterbacks on their backsides. Sometimes the roll of the dice turns up a seven. Just as often, however, the results are snake-eyes.

But if the history of the defensive end position has revealed anything, it is that history keeps repeating itself in the draft, so expect four or five defensive ends to go off the board in the first round on April 23. And expect maybe only two of them to make an immediate impact and, perhaps, even a few to be career washouts.

"Oh, it's definitely a feed frenzy-type position," acknowledged Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney at the combine. "One goes off [the board], then maybe another, and then every franchise that needs [an end] feels like it's got to get one before they run out. So, yeah, historically, you see teams take a lot of chances at the position. As a result, you see some hits and you see some misses."

Hurney and the Panthers made one of the most notable hits of the past several years in 2002 when they chose Julius Peppers with the second overall choice. But for every home run-type end such as Peppers, who has become one of the NFL's most dominant players at his position, there are a lot of strikeouts at end as well.

The litany of defensive end woe includes Courtney Brown, chosen first overall in 2000, who had more games missed to injury than he had sacks during his five seasons with the Cleveland Browns. Andre Wadsworth, the third overall pick in '98 by Arizona, was a supposed double-digit sack threat, but his NFL career was truncated by knee injuries. And how about Jamal Reynolds of Green Bay, the 10th player picked in 2001 and now out of the league?

The first round of the 1999 draft produced Atlanta Falcons standout Patrick Kerney, but also Ebenezer Ekuban (Cowboys), Lamar King (Seahawks) and the troubled Demetrius Underwood (Vikings). At a point when their careers should be peaking, Underwood and King are out of the league. For every Simeon Rice, one of the NFL's top sackers, there is a Cedric Jones, one of the three other ends chosen in the first round in 1996, and pretty much regarded as a bust.

In the last 10 drafts, there have been 37 defensive ends chosen in the first round. Of that group, 14 are no longer in the NFL, 11 are playing with franchises other than the ones that selected them, and two are playing different positions. Only seven of the 37 have made at least one Pro Bowl appearance.

Odds are that the 2005 draft will include its share of first-round defensive ends who do not measure up to their hype. Don't bet against Pollack, though, making a pretty quick impact in the league. Even if some teams remain uncertain about how much Pollack will play at end – some franchises project him as a linebacker, likely in a 3-4 defense, and have auditioned him at that position – nearly everyone agrees that he possesses the right stuff.

My eyes are always on the prize. I'm always focused. There are a lot of things in the NFL, I understand, that I won't be able to control. But you can always control your own approach to the game, the [zeal] with which you go out every week, the effort you put out.
David Pollack

For sure, there are some concerns about Pollack's size, explosiveness off the ball, and ability to always anchor against the run. But he plays with such a passion, his motor revving high on every snap, that Pollack has been moving steadily up draft boards leaguewide. It seems that teams are again paying more attention to performance than potential, viewing a prospect's body of work and not just his body, period, and few players have registered the kind of numbers that Pollack rung up in four seasons.

Even with some of the alleged misgivings, Pollack still had more career sacks than all but one player in this year's draft, and it is impossible to ignore the relentless manner with which he performs. There are a few end prospects in the '05 talent pool who more closely fit the computer profile for the position. None has demonstrated the kind of heart Pollack brings to the game.

The way Pollack sees things, it is the intangible qualities that have set him apart, and that will serve him well at the next level. He may be short-armed but the confident Pollack will never be accused of being shortsighted.

"It's just the way I've always played," Pollack said. "And it's the way I will continue to play. My eyes are always on the prize. I'm always focused. There are a lot of things in the NFL, I understand, that I won't be able to control. But you can always control your own approach to the game, the [zeal] with which you go out every week, the effort you put out. Believe me, the fire isn't going to burn any less for me [in the NFL], I know."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.