NFL Pass Rushers Defy Labels

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The early stages of Saturday's NFL draft promise to be very busy and, potentially, very confusing when it comes to defensive linemen.

It's not that there are major disagreements among the league's talent evaluators about whether the defensive linemen are good. Rather, what's at issue in many cases is the seemingly basic question of which players are defensive linemen and which aren't -- or, more specifically, whether certain top pass rushers will be defensive ends or outside linebackers once they reach the NFL.

The answer is: It depends.

This type of discussion about such players, described by people within the league as either hybrids or 'tweeners, has become prominent around draft time in each of the last few years. With the three-linemen, four-linebacker defensive scheme coming back into widespread use, NFL teams have had to focus plenty of their predraft evaluation efforts on these players, who could play either outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or defensive end in a 4-3.

The discussion might be more relevant than ever this time, with New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick estimating at the NFL scouting combine in late February that as many as 10 teams will use the 3-4 setup as their basic defensive alignment next season.

"It's a little bit like the West Coast offense when Mike Holmgren and Jon Gruden and Andy Reid and Brian Billick left the [Bill] Walsh system and were head coaches," Belichick said, "and this league was heavy West Coast offense. . . . So it's trendy, but that's the NFL. It's cyclical. And now the 3-4 defense seems to be as popular as it was in the '80s when they had some Pro Bowl positions that followed the 3-4 defense to recognize some of those players."

So as this NFL draft approaches, there's plenty of talk about whether pass-rushing specialists such as Brian Orakpo of Texas, Aaron Maybin of Penn State, Everette Brown of Florida State and Larry English of Northern Illinois will end up being defensive ends or outside linebackers.

"I think it's an interesting group," Belichick said at the combine. "I think there's some really talented players there, guys from different backgrounds, guys who've been in coverage, guys who haven't been in coverage with pass-rush ability. The Orakpos, the Englishes, guys like that. So that will be part of the process as we go forward and try to figure out how they would fit into, in our case, our system, how we would utilize them, what their skills are, and how that translates."

A team with a 4-3 defense must decide whether one of the 'tweeners is sturdy enough to play defensive end against running plays. A club with a 3-4 setup must evaluate whether one of those players is sufficiently agile to drop back into pass coverage.

"It's always a challenge for us," said Kevin Colbert, the director of football operations for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who use a 3-4 formation. "But we're used to it now. When we look at 260- or 255-pound guy, [the Steelers ask], Can they make the transition to do the things they need to do from a coverage standpoint? That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent, and it also reminds you you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop. Everyone who has been in our system as outside linebackers, it usually took them a minimum of two years and usually three to four years before they were ready to contribute. And a lot of those guys contributed a heck of a lot as they turned into starters."

Colbert calls this group of in-between players "very strong." Arizona Cardinals General Manager Rod Graves agreed, saying, "We feel this is one of the deepest areas of the draft."

But it also makes it nearly impossible to estimate how many defensive linemen are likely to be taken in the first round. If all of the coveted 'tweeners end up as defensive ends in the NFL, it's entirely possible roughly one-quarter of the 32 players selected in the opening round will be defensive linemen.

Other possible first-round defensive ends include Tyson Jackson of Louisiana State and Robert Ayers of Tennessee.

There's also a highly regarded group of defensive tackles that includes B.J. Raji of Boston College, a possible top 10 pick, plus Peria Jerry of Mississippi and Evander Hood of Missouri.

"There are some nice defensive tackles in this draft," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said at the combine.

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