INDIANAPOLIS -- Rookie linebackers don't seem to be appreciated until the votes are tallied for defensive rookie of the year at the end of the season.
Only eight linebackers have been first-round picks in the past five drafts. Yet four of the past five defensive rookies of the year have been linebackers. For a position that isn't supposed to be valued for impact, NFL teams seem to be getting a bargain with rookie linebackers.
"It's understandable," Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "Obviously, we're not big defensive ends who are going to get 15 to 18 sacks a year. We're not going to be a running back who's going to rush for 1,500 yards. It's a spot where there are three or four of them on the field, I guess you can justify not taking guys too high. All I want is a chance, regardless of where I'm taken."
Hawk doesn't have cause for worry. Neither do the rest of the linebackers in this draft class, which is being rated as the best since 2000 when LaVar Arrington, Brian Urlacher, John Abraham, Julian Peterson and Rob Morris went in the first round. Hawk is clearly a top-five or top-six selection. Chad Greenway of Iowa, Bobby Carpenter of Ohio State, DeMeco Ryans of Alabama and Ernie Sims of Florida State are drawing first-round consideration, and a team needing a solid inside linebacker may go for Abdul Hodge of Iowa in the lower part of the first round.
"I think you've got some good players in this one," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "You know, A.J. Hawk obviously is good. Greenway is good. Those are the two guys that got all the headlines during the year. But the Alabama linebacker, Ryans, is pretty good, the Florida State linebacker, Sims, is pretty good, so you've got some, I think, real good linebackers in this draft."
Based on recent history, one of those linebackers, or a linebacker picked a round or two lower, could end up being the top defensive rookie this season.
Hawk has a chance to be drafted higher than any linebacker since 2000, when Arrington was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft by the Redskins. The Packers are thinking about him at No. 5, and the 49ers would love to take Hawk with the No. 6 pick.
"I think players are players, and if you get a chance to get a great player, you get the great player," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "I don't think you focus too much on the position. Linebackers can have an impact on teams; obviously you can name four or five in the league that are clearly the guys that opposing teams have to watch out for. Defensive linemen here in the draft normally get a little bit more publicity and a little bit more pizzazz because the good Lord only made so many defensive linemen, but I think if you get a chance to get a good, solid core player, you better take the solid core player."
Hawk's head isn't swelling with the attention. Being mentioned among the best Ohio State linebackers in history -- including such greats as Chris Spielman -- is an honor. But he knows the value a rookie linebacker can bring to an NFL team, no matter where he goes in the draft.
"It's a position where a lot of times they say they don't want to draft people too high because they think, 'How much impact can a linebacker have?'" Hawk said. "Guys like Shawne Merriman and Lofa Tatupu had huge years. I think the linebacker position, with all the defenses they're playing and with the offenses you have to face, is versatile. One week you're facing a spread offense and the next week a team is trying to pound the ball on you, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything. That's the tough thing about playing college football, and it's even magnified more in the NFL."
Still, why don't linebackers get more respect in the draft?
"It depends on the depth of the draft and the value of the player," Casserley said. "Some positions, and defensive line is one of them, people get forced up. With quarterbacks, people get forced up. Other positions don't get forced up -- tight end, safety and guard. They kind of have a way of going in the second round. But linebacker, I think just depends on the ability of the player. ... Linebacker seems to me to be a position that is not overvalued or undervalued on draft day; it's valued by what the player's ability is."
This year the ratings are good.
Around the combine
• Here's the story on Vince Young's supposedly low score on the Wonderlic Test. He took a test before the combine and was rumored to have a low score, but according to a league source, it was not the 6 that was rumored over the weekend. Regardless, he took the test again Sunday and got a 16. While it's clearly an improvement, such a low score might make teams question his ability to learn and run an NFL offense, and scare franchises from investing a top-five pick on him. Young made his decision to turn pro late, so he might have been ill-prepared for the exam. By taking the test again and getting a 16, the panic should pass. Young will also get to take another test before the draft.
• Bad first scores on the Wonderlic aren't rare. One agent who represents a potential first-round pick told the tale of his client, who first scored a 10. He had taken the test with a bunch of teammates who were joking around and shooting spitballs at each other. The test is given in 12 minutes and has 50 questions. Few in that room took the test seriously and several had bad scores. The agent said his client took the test again after doing some prep work and more than doubled the score.
• Texans general manager Charley Casserley said one team inquired about trading up for the first pick in the draft, and he was approached by a couple of other teams during the combine. "We already had a conversation with one team before we got here, we had a couple of conversations since we've gotten here," Casserley said. "I think this is early in the game. Really, it's going to be April when things get serious …
"What do we have, 10 new coaching staffs? Or whatever the number was. They have to go in and evaluate their players. They're right now going to be a little bit behind in getting ready for the draft, so as they go through and evaluate the draft, finish free agency, you get to April, people put those draft boards up, that's when people are really going to focus in. And I think the quarterbacks are going to be the focus for that first pick, as far as trade goes."
Don't expect the Texans to trade the pick unless there is an offer they can't refuse. The Texans are undecided on whether to take Reggie Bush or Vince Young, and Gary Kubiak, a first-year coach himself, will need a month or so to go through his analysis of the team. By the end of last season, many Texans ticket holders weren't attending games, so the team needs to get a big name out of the draft to keep the crowds happy.
• The funny part about Mike Kudla's 45 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press is that no one told him that he could be approaching a record. Kudla is an Ohio State defensive tackle who kept lifting until he tired. He was told his 45 reps tied a combine record held by Leif Larsen, the defensive tackle from UTEP, who went in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. There are records that indicate Eastern Kentucky defensive tackle Justin Ernest had 51 in 1999. He wasn't drafted.
• The big winner Sunday was Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson, who ran a blistering 4.32 40-yard dash and solidified a first-round grade. Jackson is a big receiver who had 88 catches last season and has the breakaway speed teams are looking for.
• The 4.49 40-yard dash of Colorado wide receiver Jeremy Bloom was impressive because he had virtually no preparation. He spent the past several months training for the Olympics (mogul skiing) and, as he said, it's hard to run in snow boots. He didn't start running until four or five days ago, and he's not at his football weight of about 185. Instead, he's at 170. When he runs it again in a month, he can probably post a 4.4 or lower.
• The word around the combine on the CBA talks is that the NFLPA is asking for 61 percent of total revenues and that the NFL is willing to give 57 percent. Each percentage point is worth around $1 billion over the six-year extension being talked about. It's likely that the sides could settle at 59 or 59.5. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw insists he won't extend the start of free agency past March 3, but commissioner Paul Tagliabue is trying to get a deal done by Wednesday at 4 p.m., and hoping to push free agency back to March 10.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.