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News » Several DEs must show they can handle 3-4 2009-02-24

Several DEs must show they can handle 3-4 2009-02-24

Several DEs must show they can handle 3-4 2009-02-24
INDIANAPOLIS - Connor Barwin is anxious to learn whether he can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.

He isn't the only one.

The expanding number of NFL teams deploying that scheme also want to know whether standout college defensive ends like Barwin (Cincinnati), Brian Orakpo (Texas), Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech) and Everette Brown (Florida State) can make the transition to this coveted position. The evaluation process began in earnest this weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine.

"I am very intrigued by it," said Barwin, a former tight end who notched 11 sacks and 15.5 tackles for losses as a senior. "I always thought tight end was my position because I have a special skill set — toughness, the ability to play in space, the speed to run routes and make plays. But I found a serious passion for playing defense and have the ability to rush the passer and attack. Maybe playing outside linebacker could put the whole thing together."

The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Barwin could very well become the second coming of Mike Vrabel, the long-time New England linebacker with whom he is being favorably compared by draft analysts. But because he didn't play the position in college, any 3-4 team that uses an early draft choice on a player like Barwin is only making a projection.

That can get messy — and costly.

The need for impact 3-4 outside pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman is so great that the New York Jets were willing to gamble on Ohio State end Vernon Gholston with the 2008 draft's sixth overall pick. With above-average quickness and agility for a player his size, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Gholston excelled in pre-draft workouts.

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Gholston, though, couldn't get on the field as a rookie while trying to adjust to a position that requires a more varied skill set. With a mega-sized $32 million contract, there already are concerns Gholston could be a mega-bust.

Jason Babin (Houston) and Bryan Thomas (Jets) are other examples of first-round picks from earlier this decade who never fulfilled expectations after being switched.

"As a 4-3 end, you have to play the run and rush the passer," said Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh's director of player personnel. "You don't care what was going on in the back end of things. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, you've still got to play the run. You've got to learn how to rush the passer from a two-point stance. And you've got to deal with the back end, which you've never had to deal with before.

"Physically, you can see if players have certain athletic ability — feet, hips, speed to drop and cover. Mentally, you don't know."

There is even uncertainty about veteran NFL ends being converted by teams shifting to a 3-4. Green Bay's Aaron Kampman must prove he is nimble and instinctive enough to enjoy the same success as during his first seven NFL seasons when he logged 50.5 sacks.

"We think Aaron has tremendous ability to change (direction), quickness and power," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "It's one of the main things you're looking for at the spot. Everyone always subscribes to him being an overachiever. In terms of the dropping and things like that, he's a better athlete than people think."

In Denver, Elvis Dumervil had 26 sacks in his first three NFL seasons coming off the edge in a 4-3. But at only 5-foot-11, Dumervil lacks the ideal height desired in 3-4 outside linebackers from a coverage and run-stuffing standpoint.

Then again, Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is only six feet tall and that didn't keep him from winning 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors or scoring on a 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII.

"I just think it really comes down to whether the guy has that quick-twitch (athleticism)," said San Francisco coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose team runs a 3-4 and needs pass-rush help. "You're not very smart if you're going to be dropping him more than rushing him. But you just want to know that on occasion if you need to drop him, can he do it?"

Now back in vogue after fading during the 1990s, 11 teams will enter the 2009 season playing a base 3-4. Arizona is expected to incorporate more elements of the scheme in their defense; Kansas City may as well.

The 3-4's rebirth will have a trickle-down effect on April's draft.

End/linebacker "tweeners" that would have slipped into the later rounds when fewer teams were playing a 3-4 will now get drafted earlier because of the premium at the position. For example, it's hard to imagine a converted college end like Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley (11.5 sacks in 2008) slipping until midway through the second round like he did in 2007.

"It doesn't take a genius to watch Michigan tape from three years ago and see Woodley come off the ball," Thompson said. "Maybe he's not a prototypical 3-4 guy because he's not as tall as some of those guys need to be. But you knew he was a good player."

The decade-long success of the Steelers and New England — as well as the spread of former members of their coaching staffs around the league — has prompted some teams to switch from a 4-3. But Giants general manager Jerry Reese said there are other reasons as well.

"Some people just like that defense," said Reese, whose team runs a 4-3. "They feel they can make adjustments better with more linebackers out there. It's also easier to find hybrid linebacker/end-types than big, strong defensive tackles up front."


Alex Marvez interviewed Connor Barwin, Ted Thompson, Mike Singletary and Jerry Reese on Sirius NFL Radio.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 24, 2009

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