"He said he wanted me to be out here," the Clemson coach said. "There's no way I'm going to miss this. Not after he played hurt for me all last season, and never once complained."
Merling, who declared himself available for Saturday's NFL Draft in January, worked out in front of 15 NFL teams. It was the first time the 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive end worked out in front of NFL coaches and executives since he had surgery on a sports hernia about two months ago.
It was also somewhat of a risky move to make considering the draft is just two days away and he is almost a sure lock as a first-round pick.
"I just didn't want him to get hurt," Merling's agent Jimmy Sexton said.
But against the advice of his agent, Merling held a 27-minute workout in which he did basic drill techniques, while trying to prove he was quick and agile enough to drop back into zone coverage and make plays.
"For him being out here just the little bit of time that he has, I thought he did a good job," Merling's personal trainer and former New York Jets defensive line coach Deny Marcin said. "He held up well, did all the drills, cutting, I thought he did good."
Sexton held the former Clemson defensive end out of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last February when they discovered Merling was suffering from a sports hernia that he apparently first injured during camp last August. When word got out that Merling was suffering from the injury and had surgery, his draft stock - once projected as a top 10 pick - dropped to the middle or late first round.
Merling said he decided to work out today, though it could only hurt his position in the draft, to prove to NFL coaches and scouts that he was ready to play football and that the injury wasn't going to hold him back.
"I wanted to show them that I can move," he said. "I wasn't trying to go for it or nothing but I just wanted to prove that I can move, and hopefully I proved to them that I'm healthy right now."
Marcin clarified that Merling wasn't 100 percent healthy, but that's not what they were trying to prove to the coaches and executives who were on hand, including a coaching posse from Washington that included team owner Daniel Snyder among others.
"We told the guys he has only been out here for a couple of weeks. It's not like he has been training for this for two months so I think he held up very well," Marcin said. "They (Merling and his agent) felt he was ready enough, but the guys that are here know he isn't 100 percent yet, but I was impressed. I thought he did well."
Merling was definitely very impressive during his junior season at Clemson. His team-high 17 tackles for a loss, including team-best 7 sacks, never gave an indication he was playing hurt. He also finished the year ranked fifth on the squad with 78 tackles, 16 more tackles than last year's No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft and former teammate Gaines Adams had during his senior year of 2006.
"Teams are worried about him having the surgery and if he is healthy," Merling's uncle and former position coach at Clemson Chris Rumph said. "If he is this, can he go? I think the purpose of this is to show that 'yeah I'm not 100 percent, but I'm not out here limping on one leg and that I will be able to go by the time camp and stuff starts.'
"I know how competitive he is, and how bad he wanted to prove to people that he was healthy and was ready to go for the draft. Once he made his mind up that he wanted to go, Jimmy was like okay let's do it."
Now the question is where will Merling go?
Before Wednesday's big trade that dealt Kansas City defensive lineman Jared Allen to Minnesota for their first-round pick, the thought was Merling might go to the Vikings at No. 17. Now, many experts believe he will go to Washington at No. 21, though there is still a slight chance the Carolina Panthers might pick him up at No. 13.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who were also in attendance Thursday and have the No. 23 pick, are also shopping for a defensive end of Merling's size and athletic ability to maybe come in and be a backup to Aaron Smith the next couple of years. But it's believed the Steelers will perhaps wait for the second or third round before picking up a defensive end.
"I don't know, I'm not smart enough to figure that draft stuff out," Rumph said when asked about where he thinks his nephew might go. "You have a couple of different guys. You got some guys that are all into the numbers and they want to see him run around in shorts and t-shirts. They look good, but when you put on the film, the film doesn't match the workouts.
"But if you look at the film and watch this kid, it's a no brainier. Those are the two type guys. There are teams that believe in the film and there are teams that believe in the workouts. It all depends on what they are looking for."
Merling just hopes whatever any of them are looking for they found it in him on Thursday.
"They're going to get a player. A football player," he said. "I'm a football player. I'm going to compete every single day in practice on the football field. I don't care if I play a three technique, at nose guard, linebacker or defensive end; I'm going to give it my all. I don't care.
"That's thing about me. I don't care where I go and (where) I play. As long as I gave it my all, that's what I'm going to do."
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