Merriman can play DE or LB

In scouting circles, describing a defensive player as a "tweener" used to be the equivalent of a four-letter word. Scouts cursed at trying to assess players who were too small to play defensive end but too big to play linebacker.

But it's 2005, and in this year's draft, "tweener" is a positive term. The NFL trend is toward flexible defensive formations, thanks to the success of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The good news is that some top prospects this year appear to be easily convertible to whatever defense is stressed.

Linebacker Shawne Merriman of Maryland and defensive ends Demarcus Ware of Troy and David Pollack of Georgia aren't caught between positions. They appear to be qualified for any challenge, which improves their draft stock.

"Back in the day, tweener wasn't always a positive thing," said Merriman, who's 6-foot-4, 274 pounds. "You hear, 'OK, this guy is not big enough to go against the tackle, and he's probably a little too slow to play linebacker.' In this case, I can do both just as well. I can run as fast as a 235-pound linebacker. I'm just as strong as a 290-pound defensive end. Whatever you want I can do."

Enhancing Merriman's value are his college game tapes. Unlike most college defenders, he wasn't locked in to one position. He can show teams tape where he was playing with a hand on the ground as a defensive end. But he can also show plenty of linebacking tape. No wonder his March 16 pro workout day was overcrowded with 80 representatives from the NFL. He had head coaches, defensive line coaches and linebacker coaches. No tweener, Merriman's just a football player and he's not alone in this draft.

Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a simple way of describing the complexities of switching between a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme. "All it is is having one guy with his hand on the ground or one guy standing up," Phillips has said for years. "It's not that complicated."

Recent trends have followed that simplicity. The Chargers switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 last season and won 12 games. More and more teams are going into hybrid defenses in which they can switch from four-man to three-man lines on a moment's notice. The 49ers and Browns are converting to a base 3-4. The Ravens and Raiders are switching back from a 3-4 to a 4-3. But all four of these teams will use elements of both defenses.

Players such as Merriman, Ware and Pollack and others like them will make defenses more unpredictable, which is why Merriman and Ware should go in the top 12 and Pollack won't be far behind. Each is what flexible teams are looking for: a playmaker who can rush the quarterback from defensive end or linebacker.

"When people watch film, they get a chance to see me playing linebacker and defensive end," Merriman said. "Whatever teams need me to do full time, I can do that. I was originally projected to go in the late first. A lot of people have started to see my film. They see my running with running backs down the sideline. They see me going head to head with an offensive tackle, so they can say this guy can do more than one thing. They see me standing up over a tackle or a tight end, and they see me re-rerouting wide receivers in a stand-up position."

Which is why Merriman spent a good portion of his interviews at the combine standing at a chalkboard and explaining all the things he did. Maryland ran a diverse, complex defense. At the combine, he explained all the different things he could do from the different positions. Everyone was impressed. His days of being a possible late first-rounder were gone. He became a major player in the draft, and he is expected to be one of the top defensive players taken, and the beauty is that the scheme of the team that drafts him doesn't matter.

For example, if the Vikings at No. 7 overall don't get the wide receiver to fill Randy Moss' void, they could look at Merriman as a 4-3 defensive end. The Lions could do the same thing at No. 10 for their 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys and Chargers draft 11th and 12th in the first round. Bill Parcells would like to go to a 3-4, and he supposedly prefers Ware as a linebacker prospect. The Chargers play a 3-4, and they would love the chance to add Merriman to their lineup as a 3-4 linebacker.

Ware is 6-4, 251 and has 4.56 speed in the 40. Pollack is 6-2, 265 and has 4.75 speed but may be better suited for defensive end, but times are changing. Remember a couple of years ago when Terrell Suggs was considered too slow to play linebacker? Some wondered if his slow 40 speed lowered his value as a defensive end. He was a tweener.

In two seasons with the Ravens, Suggs has 22½ sacks and has been to a Pro Bowl. He showed the ability to play linebacker in his first two seasons, and now he's making a seamless transition to defensive end in the 4-3.

This year's draft has convertible players who are faster. At the combine, in fact, scouts had Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James drop into coverages as if he were a linebacker, and they were surprised how well he did. Even he could make the conversion into a 3-4 defense. Belichick's Patriots are loaded with former defensive linemen who made the switch to 3-4 linebackers – Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Dan Klecko are just a few examples.

"The positive of putting your hand down as a defensive end is that you get a faster pass rush," Merriman said. "You can really get a good takeoff from that position. The negative is you don't see everything in the backfield you see when you are a linebacker. At linebacker standing up, you see tendencies and you don't have as many people on you right away. You also don't have 325- to 340-pound guys in your face that you have to bump with for 60 minutes."

Merriman is working out three times a day getting ready for the draft and for training camp. His nickname since high school is "Lights Out." When he sacks a quarterback, he flexes his arm to show the "Lights Out" tattoo he has, and he makes a motion as if he's turning off the light switch.

Next week, Merriman plans to have some interactive games on his website in which users can have him sack their favorite quarterback and watch him turn the lights out on them with a hit. This tweener doesn't care if he's a linebacker or a defensive end. He's getting to the quarterback from wherever he is on the field.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.