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Jury still out, but Justice thinks he's a top-10 pick

Winston Justice's busy pre-draft itinerary included time "Alone with Rome" on Thursday's edition of "Jim Rome is Burning" on ESPN. Well, literally and figuratively the host had company. Justice himself is pretty hot these days.

A 39-inch vertical leap, 38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, and a time in the 40-yard dash at just more than five seconds (despite a cramp) at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds will do that. Justice's performance at Southern Cal's pro day on April 2 and his potential -- an early entry, he's 21 and only started playing football as a junior in high school -- make him a virtual lock to be the second tackle taken in the upcoming draft, behind Virginia's D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

And while he doesn't quite sound steamed about it and says it's nothing personal against Ferguson, it's apparent from talking to Justice that the whole No. 2 thing doesn't sit well with him. Justice recently changed agents, from Leigh Steinberg to Gary Uberstine, but clearly he doesn't need much assistance in the promotion area.

"I think I'm the best tackle in the nation," Justice said matter-of-factly during a phone interview over the weekend. "If I don't prove it in the draft, I'll prove it in the NFL. I'm bigger, stronger, and faster than [Ferguson] is. I believe I'm a better prospect because I have more upside. I believe I proved I'm a better athlete than he is on my pro day. I think I'll be the better football player in the NFL."

Justice, in his opinion, is a top-10 talent, although, barring a trade, he is unlikely to go earlier than 13th to Baltimore, and most draft experts have him projected at No. 14 to Philadelphia.

Just how competitive is Justice? He isn't even willing to concede that Ferguson has the more distinguished given name: "Winston Frederick Justice is a better name than D'Brickashaw Ferguson."

The concern with Justice is whether he can be a better player and person than he displayed in three seasons at USC.

His obvious self-confidence aside, Justice, who played right tackle at Southern Cal -- where he was responsible for left-handed quarterback Matt Leinart's blind side -- and projects as either a right or left tackle in the pros, is quite raw and frankly his individual workout was far more impressive than his game film, according to scouts. One team's college scouting director says he assigned Justice a second-round grade, specifically citing his struggles against Notre Dame this past season, while a West Coast scout wonders if Justice is aggressive enough.

Worse for him, Justice has the dreaded (for this time of year) "C word" attached to him. His character is a question. Justice has had legal issues. He was sentenced to probation in July 2003 for solicitation of prostitution in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. In February 2004, Justice (who was 19 at the time), pulled a toy gun on a USC student Justice mistook for a friend of his. In a plea deal, he received 60 days of electronic monitoring and three years probation. The university suspended him for the fall and spring semesters.

Justice, who started 23 of 24 games as a freshman and sophomore, returned to start all 12 games his junior season before renouncing his final season of eligibility.

"I've made mistakes and I've grown from them," said Justice, adding that he believes he made a strong impression on teams during interviews at the scouting combine and pre-draft visits. "I'm not going to make them again. I'm not going to put my NFL career at risk in any way."

While he was electronically monitored -- in the form of a plastic bracelet on his right ankle -- Justice was allowed to leave his parents' home only to train and, when necessary, for counseling sessions or meetings with the university. His daily routine consisted of working out in the mornings and a new hobby, boxing, in the afternoons. He would return home too exhausted, he says, to dwell on his situation.

Boxing, Justice says, helped him improve his agility and hand speed. He sparred but never with professionals. "I didn't want to mess up my face because it's too pretty," he joked, sounding like an Ali wannabe.

"[Training was] all I wanted to do," Justice said. "I didn't want to go to the club or to the mall. I wanted to work out and have the best season I could and prove everybody wrong. It made me focus. It made me get in the best shape of my life. After those 59 days I was a different athlete."

Justice says his schedule didn't change very much in the two months between electronic monitoring and his return to school.

No surprise considering that Justice, when he decided as a high school sophomore to give up his hoop dreams and pursue football, would drag his father, Gary, to Gold's Gym so that he would be allowed to lift weights; at 15 he was too young to do so unsupervised. His father would read while Winston worked out. Let him tell it, his recent troubles aside, Justice always has been a focused young man. He was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, attended church three nights a week and, when he wasn't in school, he usually could be found at the neighborhood basketball court. Or, from age 10 to 13, playing the piano. Take that D'Brickashaw. (Ferguson plays the saxophone.) Justice takes pride in his work ethic. He says that at USC he was one of the first in the weight room and last to leave the field.

His goal is lofty but nonetheless simple: When he leaves the game, Justice says, he wants to be remembered along with the best to play the tackle position. In the meantime, he won't forget the experience of 2004, when his troubles caused him to miss out on experiencing USC's second national championship.

"It was all kind of like a blessing in disguise," said Justice, who acknowledges that he still struggles with a bit of a stuttering problem, though that didn't stop him from speaking to Boy Scouts during his time away from football and recently to students at his old elementary school about the value of making the right choices. "It made me not take anything for granted and look at football differently. It made me a better person.

"It happened, but I believe I made the best of it."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.