http://www.nfl.com/news/story/9122204 By Jim Trotter Special to NFL.com SAN DIEGO (Dec. 29, 2005) -- Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman has never lacked for athletic ability or confidence, a point his new teammates learned soon after the San Diego Chargers selected Merriman with the 12th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. "When he first got here, he said he had some nastiness to him, and that was one thing he was going to bring," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "He's definitely brought it. ... I mean, the guy has brought a different mindset to the defense." Last year, the Chargers tied for the third-fewest sacks (29) in the league. This year, they have the fifth most (44). At 6-foot-4, 272 pounds, Merriman is a big reason for the turnaround. He leads all rookies with nine sacks and is considered the frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His chief competitors are inside linebackers Odell Thurman of Cincinnati and Lofa Tatupu of Seattle, both of whom rank No. 1 for their respective teams in tackles and No. 2 in interceptions. And each has the respect of a particular rookie outside linebacker in San Diego. "I've seen them play some, and they're good players," Merriman said this week. Still, Merriman's burst of brilliance since cracking the starting lineup in Week 7 will be hard to ignore. In his last nine games, the former University of Maryland standout has eight sacks, 45 tackles (five for losses) and one forced fumble. More importantly, the team has gone 6-3 after a 3-3 start. If that's not enough to get people's attention, this is: Last week, he became the first rookie outside linebacker to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl since 1989 when Derrick Thomas went for the Chiefs. He was at his best in the team's most-anticipated game, against the then-13-0 Indianapolis Colts in Week 15. Merriman had a half sack on each of the Chargers' first two defensive series and added a solo sack in the second half, using one arm while on his knees to sweep Peyton Manning off his feet. He also had three tackles for loss, including one on fourth-and-goal from the 1, as the Chargers ended the Colts' quest for perfection. "He's electric," said San Diego linebacker Steve Foley. "Anytime you get young guys coming in like that, it's always going to bring something to the table for your team. Just the energy that he brings, his aggressiveness, really shows a lot. And this guy's got unbelievable power. "That's one area that teams make a mistake in, when they try to block him with a back or (fan) the guard to try to block him. That's the No. 1 mistake. “Hopefully we can get teams to continue to do that and get the same results. He's just a big, strong, physical specimen. The guy is just a beast, an animal." The amazing thing is, Merriman has blossomed despite a late start. He missed every offseason workout and minicamp because of concerns about the verbiage in the team's injury protection agreement and was a late arrival to training camp because of delays with finalizing his contract. Once in town, he was slowed by injuries that prevented him from playing in the season opener. Teammates and coaches, however, praise his work ethic and study habits, saying he is all business when it comes to football. While others play cards or relax on team flights, Merriman can often be found studying his playbook. He has been known to work out the day before games at the team hotel ... just because. "He's a beast, it ain't no hiding that," second-year linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "He's going to be a great player in this league for a long time." Merriman was the fifth defensive player taken in the 2005 draft, behind cornerbacks Adam "Pacman" Jones (No. 6, Tennessee), Antrel Rolle (No. 8, Arizona) and Carlos Rogers (No. 9, Washington) and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (No. 11, Dallas). He is attempting to become the first rookie to lead the Chargers in sacks since the team began tracking the statistic in 1982 and currently is one off the club rookie record that Chris Mims set in 1992. Merriman said winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award "would mean a whole lot" because "it would just say that you kind of benefit from your hard work." Thurman was a steal with the 48th pick. The former Georgia standout has started 14 of 15 games and leads the Bengals with 139 tackles, 41 more than any teammate, according to the club's statistics. His five interceptions lead all rookies and are tied for the league high for linebackers, and he also shares the team lead with four forced fumbles and is third with nine passes defensed. Those statistics are almost identical to the ones former Bengal Takeo Spikes posted last season while earning a trip to the Pro Bowl at inside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. "The sky is the limit with Odell," coach Marvin Lewis has said. It's not a stretch to say the Bengals would not be 11-4 without Thurman, whose takeaways have figured prominently in several wins. His interceptions include a 30-yard score that erased a 17-10 third-quarter deficit at Tennessee on Oct. 16, and his fourth-quarter pick against Pittsburgh in Week 13 set up the drive that resulted in the decisive touchdown. He also had a fumble recovery against Chicago on Sept. 25 that led to the Bengals' first score in the win. And yet Thurman's contributions cannot be measured solely in numbers. His aggressiveness has brought needed attitude to the Bengals defense that should only improve in the coming seasons. The Seahawks have been searching for a stalwart at middle linebacker since coach Mike Holmgren moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1999, and they appear to have their man in Tatupu, the 45th pick overall and the franchise's highest-drafted linebacker since 1998, when Anthony Simmons was taken 15th overall. Tatupu, who played on two national championship teams at USC, leads the Seahawks with 102 tackles, is tied for second with three interceptions and ranks third with four sacks, according to club stats. He makes the adjustment calls for a front seven that is rarely out of position and has been a central figure in a defense that ranks sixth against the run (allowing 96.1 yards a game) and is tied for first in fewest rushing scores allowed (four). More impressive, Seattle has allowed only one 100-yard rusher (Tiki Barber). Tatupu is not the biggest nor the fastest, but he has great instincts, determination and study habits. He started out as a two-down run defender, but after three or four weeks he was an every-down player because of his ability to be in the right spot and align his teammates in the right spots.