Originally created 04/14/02

Undersized defensive end could be a steal in draft



When next weekend's NFL draft unfolds, Dwight Freeney will sit at home and wait, watching other players get picked and wondering how long teams will remain rigid about prototypes and insist on ignoring production.

The problem? Freeney is a defensive end.

And the book on DEs says they have to be big guys - 6-foot-4, maybe 6-foot-5. That's why the scouts are in love with Julius Peppers of North Carolina, who stands 6-6 and weighs 283 pounds, Kalimba Edwards of South Carolina, who is 6-5 and 265, and Charles Grant of Georgia, who is 6-3 and 278.

Now along comes Freeney, a relative pipsqueak at 6-1 and 263. Compared with others at the position, he looks like a runt.

Then he starts playing.

Freeney set the NCAA record with 17 1/2 sacks last season. He forced 11 fumbles and recovered three, another NCAA record. In his last 20 games at Syracuse, he had 31 1/2 sacks. There were streaks of 14 games in which he had one sack and seven games in which he had two.

Last year's No. 1 pick, quarterback Michael Vick, knows all about Freeney. When Syracuse played at Virginia Tech in 2000, Freeney set a school record, decking Vick 4 1/2 times for losses of 41 yards. Nobody treated Vick that badly in his first season in the NFL.

Freeney finished his career at Syracuse with 34 sacks, second in school history only to Tim Green's 45 1/2 , and 104 tackles, 68 of them solos. He was a finalist for the Lombardi Award for the nation's best lineman, and the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy for the best defensive player.

In predraft workouts, Freeney was clocked in 4.38 seconds for 40 yards, astounding speed for a defensive end. Yet he is projected perhaps no higher than a late first-round pick, expected instead to stick around for a while when the teams start carving up the prospects.

So what's the problem?

It's all a matter of his size. Even on his tiptoes, Freeney just doesn't fit the traditional DE mold. Teams know what a DE is supposed to look like and rarely deviate from that recipe.

"The NFL is about imitation, not innovation," said Gary Wichard, Freeney's agent.

Freeney has heard the complaint about size so much that he just laughs it off.

"I never had a problem with my size," he said. "I'm a little shorter, but I get off the ball real quick. I think my size is an advantage for me. I use my speed. I go after the ball. I learned to play that way. I play the angles a little differently. You don't see big guys knock down passes. I do."

Then he added an exclamation point.

"I can play!"

Freeney visited the Bears, Giants, Jets, Ravens and Bills last week, five teams in five days, each of them probably equipped with a tape measure or yardstick.

John Butler, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, knows all about the young man's sacks record and his impressive workout numbers.

"I look at production first, and he was amazingly productive," Butler said. "It's simply the size factor. He'd probably be very high in the first round if it weren't for that."

Super scout Gil Brandt likes Freeney a lot. He'd like him even better if the young man were a little bit bigger.

"He's a heck of a player," Brandt said. "You don't have 17 sacks if you're not a good player. Anytime you have a player with a burst of speed like he does, he's going to play some place. It might be with a team like Pittsburgh that has a 3-4 defense, where he could play the weak side. He's extremely talented. They're going to have to find a place for him."

Then comes the old refrain about size.

"I'm not sure he can be a 4-3 end," Brandt said. "I just don't know if he's big enough to be there and play every down you want a defensive end to play."

For his part, Freeney said he could only recall one time in sports when being vertically challenged interfered with his performance.

"I used to play basketball against my next door neighbor," he said. "He took advantage of me."

That's because the neighbor is 6-foot-10 Brooks Sales, who plays for Villanova.