7 Points: Don't overlook Laurinaitis

Has LB James Laurinaitis been too good for too long? Will WR Ramses Barden tower over the competition in the NFL? What's so special about DE Connor Barwin? And why is Dicky Lyons blaming Peyton Manning for his knee injury? Find out the answers to those questions and more in Ed Thompson's latest 7 Points.

Point No. 1

Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis has simply been too good for too long.

In a world where the media and fans often overreact to their short-term memories, talented players who posted attention-grabbing performances during their senior year are too often heralded as "can't miss" prospects. But in reality, some will wash out after they've pocketed millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, it appears that some people got so used to James Laurinaitis playing at a consistently high level of performance for three years in the Big Ten Conference that he's become a first-round talent who has fallen off their radar a bit. And that's simply ridiculous.

The 6-foot-2, 244-pound linebacker is one of just five players to earn First-Team All-American status three times. He's increased his number of tackles in each of the past three seasons and has never missed a game due to injury at any level. He's won the Nagurski Award as the nation's top defensive player, the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, the Lott Trophy for his excellence in personal character and on-the-field performance, and was a two-time winner of the Jack Lambert trophy that also recognizes the top linebacker in the country. 

The intensely focused player exploded into the national spotlight in 2006 when he made 115 stops, picked-off five passes, forced three fumbles and notched four sacks. In 2007, he was named the first junior captain under the tenure of Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel. In 2008, he opted to return to Ohio State for his senior year out of a sense of obligation to his teammates and his coach, even though he could have easily entered the NFL Draft.

I don't know about you, but if I was going to invest millions of dollars on a high pick in the first round, I'd be going after James Laurinaitis. But do NFL teams realize the "can't miss" factor that Laurinaitis projects through his accomplishments?

"Yeah, I've talked to a few teams who really want to draft me as the foundation of their defense, and I think they realize what they're getting when the get me," he said during a recent exclusive interview. "They're getting a hard-working kid who will never take a play off, works extremely hard and will always put the team before him. They're going to get a guy who sets goals high and who achieves them.

"That's one thing that I learned from my dad, the day you get satisfied in the way you are as a player, you should just quit because you're going to start becoming a worse player if you're satisfied with yourself."

Laurinaitis has worked out for the St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins and the Denver Broncos. He had official visits with the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans, and the New Orleans Saints. The Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings were just a few of the teams who requested a formal interview with him at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Point No. 2

Any NFL team that's struggling in the red zone should have Ramses Barden highlighted on their draft board.

Cal-Poly WR Ramses Barden makes a catch.
AP Photo/Denis Poroy

Cal-Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden will make big, physical receivers like the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Terrell Owens look like his little brother. At 6-foot-6, 229 pounds, the long-striding wide receiver knows that he can have an immediate impact as an NFL rookie.

"As big as the learning curve is in the NFL transitioning from the college game, at the end of the day, it all starts in the red zone," he said during a recent phone interview. "I think I can do everything, but I know that's a role where I could bring immediate value to an NFL team and make a real impact."

Barden, who made 67 catches for 1,257 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, is confident that he has the right attitude and skill set to be a success as a professional football player.

"I'm a coachable kind of guy who is always striving to get better. I'm never satisfied," he said. "I have a ton of tools physically to the point where you can mold me into the player you want me to be for your team."

Barden said that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys have shown the most consistent interest in him over the past few months, but he's drawn interest from many teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, the Packers, Dolphins and Chiefs.

Point No. 3

Connor Barwin is this year's most versatile draft prospect ... period.

Sure, players like Missouri's Jeremy Maclin and Penn State's Derrick Williams are tremendous talents who can catch the football, run with it and be breakaway threats as return specialists. But what's made the University of Cincinnati's Connor Barwin so special in this year's draft class is that he's a defensive end who can put quarterbacks into a panic, a linebacker with the range and quickness to attack the line of scrimmage or cover a receiver, a tight end who can catch and block effectively, and a special teams star who covers well, blocks kicks and is a capable long-snapper.

As teams have watched him put his athleticism on display, they've realized what he could do for their team at the low cost of a single roster spot. Offensive and defensive coaches, along with special teams coaches, have traveled from all areas of the country to take a close-up look at Barwin, who posted 11 sacks and three blocked kicks during his senior year.

During the 6-foot-4, 256-pound player's official visit with the Patriots, he had an opportunity to meet with head coach Bill Belichick.

"He told me stay versatile, do as much as I can do, because with the Patriots I won't know how they're going to use me until I get there, and even then, it could switch halfway through the season," Barwin said. 

New England's belief that he could play on either side of the football was reflected by the fact that he met with three coaches from the offensive side of the ball and the defensive coordinator during his visit.

Barwin had eight other official team visits that included the Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, the Chiefs and the Rams. He also worked out for the Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks, the Dolphins, Patriots and Broncos. 

Point No. 4

Running back Kory Sheets believes he always has something to prove. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Don't expect Purdue running back Kory Sheets to boast about his accomplishments on the football field, even though he scored 48 rushing touchdowns, rolled for 3,341 yards on the ground, and caught 108 passes for 814 yards and five more touchdowns during his college career.

Purdue RB Kory Sheets
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Oh, and he also averaged 20.2 yards on 38 kickoff returns.

"Everybody tells me what a great career I had at Purdue, but I would say it was kind of mediocre," he said during a recent call. "I know there's still more that I can do and that I can improve on."

At the Senior Bowl, Sheets was told by one scout that he didn't believe that the 5-foot-11, 208-pound back was all that fast. The Purdue star was stunned by the comment and used it to fuel a slow burn in the pit of his stomach as he prepared for the Combine.

Then he proceeded to run the third-best 40-time by a running back in Indianapolis. 

"I felt good about that, but I wish I could have posted the fastest 40-time," he said.

Despite his never-ending perspective that he could—and should—be better tomorrow than he was today, Sheets is fully aware that he has plenty to offer an NFL team.

"Everybody has seen my explosiveness and how well I catch the ball out of the backfield," he said.

Sheets has both visited and worked out for the Eagles, and he had an official visit with the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons and the Giants are among the many other teams who have been showing strong interest in him. 

Point No. 5

Jason Williams should send a thank-you note to the organizers of the NFL Scouting Combine.

The Western Illinois linebacker wasn't invited to participate in the Combine back in February, despite his 289 tackles, 13 sacks, 42.5 tackles for a loss and 14 forced fumbles during his college career. The snub just made the playmaker work even harder, helping him to put on a big-time show at both his school's Pro Day and then again at Northwestern's Pro Day, where he reportedly posted a 4.44-second and a 4.49-second 40-time on his two attempts.

"I've always been the kind of guy who is motivated by a challenge, and I kind of took that as a challenge," Williams said during a phone interview.

Eleven of the speedy linebacker's forced fumbles were created over the past two seasons.

"It's kind of an innate ability that a lot of guys don't really have. Fortunately for me, it's become one of my strengths the past few years," he explained. "I've had that intangible ability to make big plays when the team really needed them, whether it's forcing a fumble or getting into the backfield to stop a play before they even get a chance to start."

Over the past three weeks, Williams has visited twelve teams, including the Oakland Raiders, New York Jets, the Colts, Packers, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Patriots, Titans, Seahawks, Jaguars, Browns and Cowboys. He's also had a private workout with the Patriots.

Point No. 6

NFL teams are rightfully putting more emphasis on character during the NFL Draft process, but if they're too harsh in judging LSU's Ricky Jean-Francois, they're likely to make a bigger mistake than he did. 

The LSU defensive tackle, who is highly respected for his quickness at the snap of the ball and his run-stuffing ability, was slapped with a 12-month academic-related suspension that cost him a bowl appearance at the end of his freshman year and his entire slate of regular-season games of his sophomore year. He was 20 years old at the time, and over the past two years, he's done a lot of growing up.

DT Ricky Jean-Francois holds up the championship trophy after LSU won the BCS championship game in January, 2008.
AP Photo/Rob Carr

Rather than sulk over his lost opportunity or even transfer to another school, the 6-3, 295-pound lineman stayed fully engaged with the team and encouraged his teammates. He even lined up as a member of the defensive scout team to help prepare the offensive starters during each game week.

"While some may see it as a down moment, it gave me time to find myself, get to know everybody around me better, see who were my friends, see who were my family, the people were who were going to try to help me be better," he said during an exclusive interview. "My coaches still wanted me conditioning and learning, and I was thankful for them and my teammates because they were still behind me." 

Throughout the experience, Jean-Francois had one message for his teammates since he knew that his suspension would end prior to the the SEC Championship game.

"All I kept telling my teammates the whole season was that if you get me to Atlanta, I promise you I'll take care of the rest. Just get me to Atlanta," he said.

After seeing some limited action in the SEC Championship game, Jean-Francois delivered on his promise in the National Championship Game in 2008, making six tackles, getting pressure on the quarterback and blocking a kick that shifted the momentum of the game for good in LSU's favor. The personable lineman was named the Defensive MVP of the game.

"I was shocked when they told me I was the Defensive MVP," Jean-Francois said. "When they said my name, I was halfway up into the stands already dancing with the fans. That was one of the greatest moments of my life, getting to that point and seeing how blessed I was, how appreciative I was to the game. It's like I tell everybody, to get something out of the game, you've got to give it. Respect the game and the game is going to respect you."  

The Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, the Saints, Dolphins, Rams, and Eagles are among the teams who have shown interest in the talented defensive lineman. 

Point No. 7

Kentucky's Dicky Lyons blames Peyton Manning for a serious knee injury that hindered his opportunity to position himself among the top receivers in this year's NFL Draft. 

Of course, Lyons, the Wildcat's top receiver heading into the 2008 season, makes the statement with a mischievous laugh.

During his junior year, Lyons caught 56 balls for 655 yards and seven touchdowns. He headed into his senior year with lofty, but achievable goals and NFL dreams.

"First of all, I wanted to get into the record books, because I went into my senior year close to setting records in almost all of the receiving categories," he said. "I ended in the top five in all of them even though I only finished five games. To me, my senior year was all about proving that I could be that go-to guy who was instrumental in getting us into a Bowl game."

But during the sixth game of the year, he caught a pass off of a quick out-route at South Carolina's four-yard line and turned up the field in an attempt to score. He tore his MCL and PCL on the play.

"A guy horse-collared me and brought my head down to my right knee. I heard two pops and that was all she wrote," he said.

Prior to the start of his senior year, Lyons had attended Peyton Manning's summer camp to help instruct high school athletes. One morning, the Colts quarterback invited him to work out with him. 

"I ran a five-yard out route, turned it up the field and Peyton was like, 'Dicky that's great. I love that! Most guys catch that and just run out of bounds, and I hate that.' So that's what was in my mind on that play before I got injured. I was trying to turn it up. So I blame Peyton for that," he said with a laugh.

Lyons says that he's about 80-percent recovered, has no limits on what he can do, and is now working out every day to continue to build strength in the knee. The Patriots have already put him through a workout that lasted roughly two hours, so Lyons, who sees himself as being cut from the same mold as Brandon Stokley and Wes Welker, is still optimistic that he has a bright future in pro football.

"If you're looking for a guy to play the slot, there's nobody more reliable and who can do it better than I can, that's how I honestly feel," he said. "I think I have the intelligence to read the coverages and to find those weaknesses in a defense."

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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Or contact him by email through this link.

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