LSU Defensive Tackle Glenn Dorsey. AP Photo.
INDIANAPOLIS – The heart of any good 3-4 defense starts up front with somewhat unique personal at both defensive line and linebacker suited to playing the scheme. When it comes to projecting draft prospects along the defensive front, NFL teams often look at both defensive linemen and linebackers differently depending on the scheme they employ.
For example a 4-3 team's defensive end might very well be a 3-4 team's outside linebacker. And the types of defensive linemen the two schemes require can be very different. As such, many of the questions posed to the sampling of the 54 defensive line prospects paraded through the media room at the Indiana Convention Center for the NFL Combine revolved around what roles the players might fill in the two distinct defensive fronts.
"That's always something that is something that you have to deal with. You do look at some defensive ends and try to project how they look standing on their feet," Jets Head Coach Eric Mangini said of the projection process. "You try to look at plays where they have been dropping on a zone blitz or their workouts. Will they be able to make the switch from being a guy who has his hand in the dirt, versus a guy standing up. So there is some projecting there, or quite a bit of projecting. And you go through a process and a checklist that's been developed over time, through the different 3-4 teams that I've been involved in, or other ones the staff has been involved in. Things that have worked. Player comparisons. And just try to do the best you can there."
One thing that's not being questioned is the talent that's available on the defensive line. Considering Virginia defensive end Chris Long (6-3, 272), LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (6-2, 316), USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (6-1, 308) and Ohio State defensive end/outside linebacker Vernon Gholston (6-3, 266), four players from the defensive front could easily go in the first 10 picks on draft weekend. (Note: Neither Dorsey nor Ellis were available to the media on Saturday.)
Long, the son of Oakland Raiders Hall of Famer Howie Long, played exclusively at end in Al Groh's 3-4 scheme at Virginia and is drawing rave reviews in the draft preparation process.
"There's not a lot of 3-4 college defenses and the way Chris plays in coach Groh's defense, he's as NFL ready as you can be from a 3-4 standpoint," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "He plays a very difficult technique and he does it very well so he's a perfect 3-4 defensive end. Could he stand up and be a linebacker? Absolutely. He's, I'd say, rare for a college defensive lineman, especially more specific to a 3-4 defense."
Even though he may be considered NFL-ready for the 3-4 – and by all accounts has the attitude and "motor" that coaches love -- it will still be worth watching to see if Long has the size to play end in the pros or if he does make that transition to 'backer.
"I feel that I could play at either scheme. Interestingly enough, people talk about what a transition it would be for me to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. But, let's not forget that I never played in a 4-3 in college either," Long said. "I was a base defensive end in a 3-4. Either position would be a fresh start for me and an opportunity to learn and an opportunity for me to progress as a player.
"I can see myself fitting in wherever a team wants and needs me to fit in. Being versatile is a plus and I believe I have the capabilities of being versatile at the next level. I am going to have to work hard and I'm going to have to make some adjustments. One thing you have to do is check any expectations at the door. I don't expect to play any position or anything like that. I just want to be a football player."
Gholston is another top prospect who could be transitioned in the NFL. He played the "Leo" position in the Buckeye's defense, a hybrid role blending defensive end and linebacker duties. If drafted by a 3-4 team the physically impressive Gholston would have to adjust to more time playing on two feet and dropping into coverage. It's a challenge he's more than willing to take on.
"I did 'em both in college. It's really wherever the team puts me," Gholston said of the position debate. "The biggest thing is I'm capable of playing both positions."
Gholston, like many Ohio State players, has worked out with Patriots All-Pro linebacker Mike Vrabel during summers in Columbus. Working side-by-side with a guy like Vrabel helped motivate the draft's elite pass rusher – the only opponent to get a sack on Michigan tackle Jake Long last fall – and show him where he could end up at the next level.
"A lot of guys come back and work out and help us out. [Vrabel] comes back a lot of times in the summertime for conditioning for the season, and a lot of times he actually joins in the workouts, so I get a chance to compete with him and some of the other veterans," Gholston said. "Sometimes I beat him and sometimes he beats me."
Gholston admits he could see himself in a Vrabel-type role, either in New England or in another 3-4 scheme.
"Yeah, I think I could," Gholston said. "Obviously he made the Pro Bowl this year. That's one of my goals for the future. We come from similar backgrounds, Ohio State, similar positions."
Other defensive ends who might be asked to make the transition to outside linebacker include West Virginia's Johnny Dingle (6-1, 265), UNLV's Jeremy Geathers (6-2, 256), Purdue's Cliff Avril (6-2, 253) and Michigan's Shawn Crable (6-4, 245).
Crable talked to the Patriots at the Senior Bowl and is very close with current New England linebacker Pierre Woods. Crable came to the Combine expecting to be treated as a linebacker, but was grouped in with the defensive linemen. It's a duality he's more than willing to embrace moving toward the draft.
"I think that's a bonus for me, I can play both positions. I'm kind of excited about it," Crable said. "I thought I'd be doing linebacker drills when I got here but I've got to go with the stuff they give me (he pointed to the fact his shirt read DL 10). I've got two different T-shirts, one read Linebacker and the other read Defensive end. I think it's going to be a good challenge.'
"I think I'm pretty good at both positions and I think the team that drafts me will let me know what they want me to do and then I'll focus on just one of them."
The group of more prototypical 4-3 defensive ends, players not as likely to be on New England's draft radar, includes Florida's Derrick Harvey (6-4, 271) and Clemson's Phillip Merling (6-4, 277).
"I think a lot of people are interested in me because in the 3-4 or the 4-3 schemes, I think I'm one of the true defensive ends in this class," Merling said. "There are a couple of others, but there are a lot of people that can play linebacker and defensive end. I'm probably the only type that will play defensive end or can slide inside."
All told according to NFLDraftScout.com's pre-Combine rankings more than 25 defensive end/linebacker hybrids could get called in the seven rounds on draft weekend, while another two dozen tackles could get drafted as well.
In terms of tackles after the elite, potential top-five picks of Dorsey and Ellis, there is still plenty of big-bodied talent. North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer (6-4, 308) is another possible first-round pick who, at least in his own mind, has the skills to be a playmaker on the line in a 3-4 scheme.
"If I was gonna be compared to anybody, I'd want to be compared to Richard Seymour," Balmer said of New England's All-Pro defensive end. "He's a very versatile player. He plays hard. He plays with passion."
Auburn's Pat Sims (6-4, 312), Notre Dame's Trevor Laws (6-1, 297), Texas A&M's Red Bryant (6-5, 326) and Maryland's Dre Moore (6-4, 307) are all considered second or third round picks. Mid to late round tackle possibilities include North Carolina State's DeMario Pressley (6-3, 300), Florida State's Andre Fluellen (6-2, 285), Arizona's Lionel Dotson (6-4, 288), Wisconsin's Nick Hayden (6-4, 305), Arkansas' Marcus Harrison (6-3, 310) and Virginia Tech's Barry Booker (6-4, 284), among others.
One area that doesn't appear to be real deep on the defensive line, and one that might actually interest the Patriots, is middle or later rounds nose tackles. New England has struggled to develop depth behind Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in recent years and using a pick on a bid body to back him up is a real possibility come April. One guy at the Combine this week that would certainly fit the physical characteristics as a Wilfork understudy is Texas' Frank Okam (6-4, 347). Though a couple inches taller than Wilfork, he brings the same type of girth and attitude as a potential run-stuffer in the middle of the 3-4 front.
"That's part of the game. You can't play D-tackle without stopping the run," Okam, who currently rates as a potential fourth or fifth round pick, said simply.
In the end, few if any of the defensive linemen working out at the Combine this week have performed the duties they would be asked to take on if drafted by the Patriots. That doesn't mean some them wouldn't fit in Bill Belichick's 3-4 scheme in New England. It only means like so many of the other 3-4 teams in the NFL Belichick, Scott Pioli and the rest of the Patriots staff will have to work a little harder to project exactly which draft prospects might be able to suit the team's needs either along the defensive line or at outside linebacker.