Rating the NFL Draft

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A look at the top defensive players, ranked by position, heading into this weekend's NFL draft.

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1. Simeon Rice, Illinois--The Big Ten's all-time sack leader, potentially the next Bruce Smith, if only he would grow up. He was being touted as the No. 1 overall pick last season until he fell asleep against Penn State and now will probably be taken behind teammate Kevin Hardy, who can get to the passer quicker.

2. Tony Brackens, Texas--Has a tendency to free-lance like Junior Seau. Scouts will cringe, but not before taking him somewhere in the top 10. The top defensive ends in this draft are solid and all should be picked in the first round.

3A. Regan Upshaw, California--Fast, long arms and unafraid to take chances. If you need a defensive end who does nothing but scare the bejesus out of a quarterback, then you need him.

3B. Duane Clemons, California--Smarter than his fellow Golden Bear defender, more of a knack for finding the ball (seven blocked kicks, four forced fumbles last year). Problem is, he wants to be a linebacker, and the scouts want him to be a defensive end. The next Derrick Thomas?

5. Cedric Jones, Oklahoma--No defensive end in the draft can stop the run better. Poor run defenses in the top half of the draft will flock to him.

Out of Nowhere--Dan Brandenburg, Indiana State. Weighs 254 pounds, yet runs faster than all but a dozen of the wide receivers in this draft. Doesn't Jimmy Johnson always have room for players like this?

TACKLE

1. Daryl Gardener, Baylor--There is only one true, big-butted, belly-jiggling defensive lineman in the draft, and Gardener is it. He's 6 feet 6 and 320 pounds, with one catch. He doesn't play hard. He wouldn't know a big play from a big breakfast. Somebody will take him in the top half of the first round, because there are barely a dozen good defensive players in this draft. But that somebody is facing a lot of work.

2. Marcus Jones, North Carolina--He broke Lawrence Taylor's career Tar Heel sack record with 24, so he can't be all bad. The Vikings love him, meaning he won't last past the middle of the first round.

3. Christian Peter, Nebraska--A 6-foot-3, 300-pound unappealing bully who has pleaded no contest to sexual assault charges and has enough other baggage to make Lawrence Phillips looks like a choirboy. Owners say they hate these kinds of player, then make them second-round picks.

Out of Nowhere--Bryant Mix, Alcorn State. Weighs 301 pounds but is fast enough to catch runners from behind. Emerged from obscurity to possible riches with a successful Senior Bowl.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

1. Kevin Hardy, Illinois--Certainly one of the top four players in the draft. Perfect linebacker size at 6-4, 245. Wears the same number (51) and hails from the same part of the country as Bryan Cox, now with Chicago. But Cox does not cover wide receivers the way this guy can. And Cox cannot beat up runners the way this guy eventually will.

2. John Mobley, Kutztown (Pa.)--Yes, this is the Division II school that gave us Buffalo Bill receiver Andre Reed. But Mobley is already a better story. Who else do you know who played linebacker and returned punts and kickoffs? That is, besides playing fullback in short-yardage situations. Who else led his team not only in tackles, but interceptions, kickoff returns and punt returns while scoring five touchdowns? He's 6-1, 230, and teams are falling in love with the mere idea of him.

3. Lance Johnstone, Temple--A tough guy in the improving Big East Conference. At 6-4, 245, he can also line up over a tackle, giving him important flexibility in this salary-cap era.

Out of Nowhere--Donnie Edwards, UCLA. How can a player from an NFL dispensary come out of nowhere? When he spends his senior season stuck as a middle linebacker in a new scheme that did not use his pass-rushing abilities, that's how. Teams loved him as an outside linebacker in 1994, and that is where he will return.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

1. Ray Lewis, Miami--In the past, it seems, there were always at least three smallish, quick linebackers annually drafted in the first round from this school. Because of probation and other problems, Lewis is the only one left. Look for a team with a history of successful Miami players--the Cowboys, perhaps?--to grab him.

Out of Nowhere--The rest of the inside linebackers, none of whom projects to be an impact player anywhere. Not even USC's beloved Errick Herrin, the former Marine and Gulf War veteran who will probably be ignored until the final rounds.

CORNERBACK

1. Alex Molden, Oregon--Clearly the best of a deep group. Smart, fast and unafraid. Scouts still worry about a knee injury suffered in a bowl game after the 1992 season. But he has the important corner arrogance that comes with someone who wears No. 1.

2. Walt Harris, Mississippi State--In a draft devoid of the Bobby Taylor-type large cornerbacks, he is just what coaches want--a 5-11 guy who hits like a safety. In fact, Harris was a safety for part of last season before returning to the corner. He could be drafted ahead of Molden because of his versatility.

3. Ray Mickens, Texas A&M--He; is only 5-7 but then, cornerback Mark McMillian is 5-7, and he recently made millions to leave the Philadelphia Eagles for the New Orleans Saints. If scouts can overlook the little-man stigma, they will realize that he is perhaps the best man-to-man cornerback in the draft.

4. DeRon Jenkins, Tennessee--At 5-11, he's two inches shorter than that other former Volunteer cornerback, Dale Carter, but with just as much potential. A sprinter, long jumper and major hitter.

Out of Nowhere--Anthony Dorsett, Pittsburgh. No, he won't be taken until the middle rounds, but it's always fun to compare a kid to his dad. Big Tony did everything in his career as a running back but intercept passes, which is exactly why little Tony does just that. If nothing else, scouts can count on this: The kid is used to pressure.

FREE SAFETY

1. Lawyer Milloy, Washington--This is one junior who could truly declare hardship, as he was named a ward of the state at age 15 after his Tacoma, Wash., parents couldn't take care of him. Loves to hit; just ask the guys in Westwood, against whom he had nine tackles last fall.

2. Jerome Woods, Memphis--The school that brought us Toby Wright has turned out another reckless cover guy who was strong enough to register seven tackles for losses last year while quick enough to rank seventh in the nation with 110 yards in interception returns off six picks.

Out of Nowhere--Matt Stevens, Appalachian State. Imagine playing in a place that few scouts can easily find. Then imagine missing the final games of your senior season because of major knee surgery. But then imagine being 6 feet, 200 pounds and as tough as a mountain road. Somebody will uncover him. They always do.

STRONG SAFETY

1. Ray Farmer, Duke--We know, nobody in his right mind ever drafts a football player from Duke. But this guy is different. He is also a baseball player, a power hitter in both sports at 6-3, 222. Remember, Darren Woodson also lasted until the second round.

2. Brian Dawkins, Clemson--Has the hands of a running back, which is where brother Ralph played for Louisville several years ago. He made the honor roll but, interestingly enough, scouts wonder if he is smart enough.

Out of Nowhere--Picasso Nelson, Jackson State. A hard-working athlete whose incredible speed for a 204-pounder (4.44) should make him a middle-rounder. And then won't the headline writers have fun.

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