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Ex-Illini Whitney Mercilus the definition of ‘gamble’ for Bears at defensive end

Baylor quarterback Robert GriffIII left loses possessiball as he is brought down by Illinois' Whitney Mercilus during second quarter Texas

Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, left, loses possession of the ball as he is brought down by Illinois' Whitney Mercilus during the second quarter of the Texas Bowl NCAA college football game Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010, in Houston. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Mayra Beltran) ** MANDATORY CREDIT **

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If the Bears are looking for a defensive end in the draft, here are others worth considering:

1. Chandler Jones, 6-5, 265, Syracuse: Doesn’t have Whitney Mercilus’ numbers (41/2 sacks in 2011) but has the size, quickness and especially the unique wingspan that often make the difference for elite pass rushers. Projected: Late first to early second round.

2. Nick Perry, 6-3, 271, USC: Doesn’t have the arm length, but is an exceptional athlete (4.58 40, 381/2-inch vertical) with the kind of skills Rod Marinelli could turn into a difference-making pass rusher. Projected: Late first to early second round.

3. Vinny Curry, 6-3, 266, Marshall: A raw athlete who needs work but has a knack for forcing fumbles, blocking kicks and sacking. Unimpressive measurables; just plays football. Projected: Second round.

4. Jake Bequette, 6-4, 275, Arkansas: Has an intriguing combination of size and athleticism that could turn into something with the right team and the right coaching. Could be better than he looks. Projected: Fourth or fifth round.

5. Justin Francis, 6-2, 268, Rutgers: Combination of quickness, long arms and huge hands gives him a chance to be a playmaker if he can get bigger without getting slower. Blocked three kicks, deflected five passes in 2011. Projected: Sixth or seventh round.

Updated: May 24, 2012 8:17AM

Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus could be the next Jason Pierre-Paul or Aldon Smith — pretty good company, considering Pierre-Paul had 161/2 sacks for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and Smith had 14 sacks as a San Francisco 49ers rookie last season.

Then again, who knows what Pierre-Paul or Smith will be a year from now? Pierre-Paul might be the next Cameron Wake. Smith might be the next Mark Anderson. At draft time, comparisons are for entertainment purposes only. Even if they were saying Mercilus could be the next Julius Peppers, you probably should only draft him if you can afford to make a mistake. Because you never know.

The 6-4, 254-pound Mercilus, who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011 after coming into the season with two sacks in two seasons at Illinois, is typical of the risk/reward nature of the NFL draft. He looks almost as good on film as he does on paper and in shorts. But terrific athletes who are light on their feet, close quickly and can ‘‘slither into gaps and string plays out’’ have failed before. And a year ago, Mercilus had two career sacks.

‘‘On the positive side, there’s production, albeit one year of production, which scares some teams,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said when asked if there’s anything in Mercilus’ scouting report that makes him more or less likely to succeed. ‘‘[He had] 16 sacks, nine forced fumbles — crazy numbers for one year, which begs the question, ‘Where were you before then?’

‘‘However, when you look at what he is on tape, he’s a natural edge rusher. He’s got excellent takeoff. He understands how to work up the field. Does he need to learn technique and more pass-rush moves? Yes, because right now, like a lot of gifted college kids, he depends on his speed to win.’’

Mayock said the concern for teams contemplating Mercilus in the first round is that he might not be a three-down lineman right away.

‘‘He can struggle at the point of attack in the run game,’’ Mayock said, ‘‘and I think that’s the biggest concern if you draft him today in the first round — how many snaps are you going to get out of him? Maybe it’ll be similar to what Aldon Smith did with San Francisco — he’s a situational pass rusher that’s disruptive and effective, and he’ll grow into that point-of-attack role where he’ll be a three-down player.

‘‘But I think that’s the only real downside, is can he be stout enough at the point of attack down the road to justify being a first-round pick?’’

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. thinks Mercilus could have benefitted from another year at Illinois. He said the Bears are in the right spot to take Mercilus at No. 19.

‘‘I don’t like one-year wonders, but you’re not taking him in the top 10-15,’’ Kiper said. ‘‘He would look good in a Bear uniform.

‘‘At 6-31/2, 260-265 pounds, strong in the upper body. Closes well. I like the fact that he’s a natural pass rusher. He’s got natural pass-rush instincts and natural pass-rush moves, which is critical moving forward in the NFL.’’

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