During all four college seasons, Jason Babin lined up at defensive end, so the former Western Michigan star and Houston Texans first-round draft choice can be forgiven the confusion and awkwardness that accompanied his recent NFL baptism at mini-camp.
Having played his entire career in a three-point stance, with his hand on the ground and his perspective on the quarterback gleaned by glancing up at a slightly cocked angle, Babin now attacks the pocket from an upright position. He is, of course, an outside linebacker now in the 3-4 alignment long preferred by Houston coach Dom Caper and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the latest hybrid-type player to make a position switch that he likened to learning to walk again.
Ironically, the native of Paw Paw, Mich., won't be getting his two paws nearly as dirty anymore, because he'll spend most of his time in a two-point stance now.
"I mean, in a lot of ways, it's like being a baby again," acknowledged Babin following his first exposure to his new left outside linebacker spot. "You know, you crawl first, and then you get up on your two feet. Well, I guess I'm going through the evolution process again, huh? No more hand on the ground. No more playing 'down.' It really is a totally new perspective and it's going to take a while to get accustomed to it."
The thing is, Babin is young and pliable and not as rigid in his ways, and he'll grow into his new position. Around the league, though, veteran defenders are being asked to break old habits and learn new maneuvers as more coordinators plan to either overhaul entirely to the 3-4 front or to at least incorporate it into their repertoires.
After playing tackle in Tampa Bay for nine Hall of Fame seasons, Warren Sapp will log snaps as a 3-4 end in Oakland this year. On the flip side, Raiders end DeLawrence Grant, a disappointment as a down lineman in his first three league seasons, will get a chance to revitalize his career at linebacker. In Atlanta, three-time Pro Bowl player Keith Brooking is moving back to weak-side linebacker after three seasons playing inside in the 3-4. And conversely, San Diego weak-side standout Donnie Edwards will switch to an inside spot.
"There are some old dogs, man, who are going to have to learn some new tricks," noted former Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Robaire Smith, who will see time at end with Houston, where he signed as an unrestricted free agent.
Once the flavor of the month for scheming defensive coordinators -- or, more accurately, the double-dip scoop of the late 1970s and early '80s -- the 3-4 front eventually went the way of the wide-tackle six and the "52" look. By the conclusion of the '80s, more than half the NFL had employed the 3-4 as its base defense and all but four clubs used it as at least a changeup scheme. And then, for two decades, it suffered a de-evolution of sorts.
And now, like those nettlesome cicadas chirping incessantly outside your window every night after a blessed 17-year absence, the 3-4 defense has returned.
To a group that in '03 included Pittsburgh, Houston and Baltimore, add San Diego, which hired longtime 3-4 aficionado Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator in the offseason, as a franchise that will deploy in the front this year. At least five more teams will mix in the 3-4 as an element of their defensive bag of tricks.
Blame the makeover, in part at least, on the New England Patriots, a team that is incredibly adept at disguising its fronts, and which jumps between three- and four-man lines with remarkable facility. The concept of Darwinism posits that the strongest survive. In the NFL version of Darwinism, teams survive by copying the fittest among them, by taking what succeeded for the latest Super Bowl champion and adopting it as one's own.
In a league where there really is nothing new under the sun, and all things are eventually regurgitated, the once-eclipsed 3-4 is definitely back out of the shadows. Its return makes some sense, since it remains difficult to secure depth in the defensive line, and hard to fill the end spots with the kind of 300-pounders it takes to play the "under" schemes that are so preponderant across the league. In the 3-4, players who traditionally lined up at tackle now play end. Plus the college game continues to turn out plenty of 250- and 260-pound pass rushers, defenders who lack bulk to play end in the NFL, but who can compress the pocket from the edge.
"It's just a lot easier to find a 250[-pound] guy who's a terrific athlete, quick off the edge and with some versatility, than to get a bunch of 300-pounders to fill out your line," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a longtime 3-4 proponent. "You have to adapt to the player trends, figure out the best way to play the hand you're dealt, and [the 3-4] provides you a lot of flexibility."
The increased deployment of the 3-4 almost certainly will mandate the return of some of the zone-blitz looks that had also ebbed in recent seasons.
But just because so many more teams will play the 3-4 front in 2004 doesn't necessarily mean they will play it well. As Phillips found out the hard way in Atlanta, where his unit statistically ranked 19th in 2002 but faded to last in the NFL in '03, you can't camouflage deficiencies forever, can't succeed with smoke and mirrors all the time, if you don't possess the appropriate player components for the 3-4 scheme. For all his talk of quickness overcoming size shortcomings, Phillips struggled because he tried to play the 3-4 with 275-pound ends, and that is a poor fit.
In fact, there are skeptics who question the Chargers' transformation to a 3-4 defense for this season, because they suggest San Diego doesn't have round pegs in round holes. The team's best lineman, Jamal Williams, will be just a guy now who tries to eat up blockers, drawing the double team but not making many plays. And the top playmaker, Edwards, could be relegated to just an inside run-stuffer.
Moving to the 3-4 also means a personnel department must evaluate players, and project them as well, into an altered landscape. For years, the Steelers, who have played the 3-4 since head coach Bill Cowher arrived in 1992, have been superb in unearthing college ends and morphing them into 3-4 linebackers. There has been a steady stream of such players in the Pittsburgh defense, with current star Joey Porter following in a lineage that includes predecessors like Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown and Jason Gildon.
Not every franchise, though, will be able to re-adjust its player evaluation principles and guidelines, and to locate defenders who fit snugly into a re-tooled scheme.
"My bet is that you're going to see a lot of busts, as teams scramble to find the kind of guys they need to play the 3-4," said one veteran scout whose team remains entrenched in the more conventional four-man front. "I mean, not every 250-pound college [defender] can just jump right into the 3-4. The transition to the NFL is a big enough step. So now you're telling kids, 'Uh, look, you're a linebacker now, man.' It's not that simple."
First-time coordinator Rob Ryan, who moved to the Raiders after serving as the Patriots linebackers coach, will attest to that. Borrowing a page from the New England playbook, Ryan will incorporate some 3-4 fronts into the standard 4-3 schemes to which Oakland players are more accustomed. But that first meant incorporating several veterans capable of playing the 3-4.
Enter mammoth nose tackle Ted Washington, who anchored the inside for the Patriots in 2003, Sapp, and, just this week, another former New England lineman, Bobby Hamilton. Suddenly the Raiders, who ranked dead last in stopping the run in 2003, possess a pretty formidable mix upfront. Under the tutelage of Ryan, the Raiders figure to adapt nicely to the addition of some 3-4 looks.
Not every team moving to the 3-4 front as its base defense or a change of pace, however, figures to make such a speedy transition. Just because coordinators are reaching back for an old standby defense doesn't mean their players will embrace it like it is old hat. The 3-4 is back but, whether it's back with a bang, well, that remains to be seen.
Around the league
Just this week, the agents for a couple of veteran quarterbacks still looking for work suggested their clients might have to be "injury players," the inference being that the signal-callers might have to wait for someone to be injured in preseason before the phone might ring. And then, presto, Baltimore backup Anthony Wright goes down with a torn labrum that will require surgery next week and likely sideline him for the entire '04 season, and, like vultures staring down at a carcass, the agents are suddenly circling the new job opening. And why not? Even an improved Kyle Boller, whose footwork is said to be exponentially better under the tutelage of "consultant" assistant coach Jim Fassel, is no sure bet to make it unscathed through an entire campaign. And the Ravens, young and aggressive, might look good to a veteran quarterback willing to sit back and see if Boller falters in his sophomore year. Word is that, despite the presence of Fassel, who would seemingly champion the cause of Kerry Collins, the former Giants star won't get serious consideration. Kurt Warner is all but earmarked for the Giants as Eli Manning's mentor and the Cleveland Browns are apt to swap Tim Couch to a division rival. Which leaves the Ravens looking at, uh, perhaps Kordell Stewart, who, during his Pittsburgh tenure, authored some remarkable outings versus the Ravens. Don't discount Stewart, who has been diligently working out in Atlanta, where he now resides in the offseason, and who has been just waiting for the right situation to emerge. It may have done just that with Thursday's news on Wright. As for Collins, there seems to be more to his cancelled visit with Green Bay than just the scheduling conflict his camp has suggested. Rumors persist, despite denials from people we trust within the Oakland organization, that Collins has something going with the Raiders. One Packers source also noted that Collins wanted assurances, before making the trip to Green Bay, that he topped the team's wish list to serve as Favre's caddy. The Packers declined to issue such a guarantee because their staff doesn't know Collins very well at all, and there was, thus, no comfort level with him.
Frustrated by their inability to nudge Couch to an agreement, Green Bay officials might soon try to force the issue with the former Cleveland starter. How so? One way -- and let's term this an educated guess -- might be to place a deadline on the offer that has been on the table for some time now. Couch has balked at the specter of sitting behind Brett Favre for more than one season but there aren't a lot of options available to him. Some Green Bay officials feel Couch might be taking them for granted, secure that they will always be there as a fallback, while he continues what they think are dilatory tactics aimed at seeing if there might eventually be additional suitors. The Packers could threaten, through any number of mechanisms, to yank the perceived safety net from under him. Couch clearly is the backup the Packers most covet. Coach Mike Sherman liked him personally when they met twice and Green Bay coaches evaluate him as a solid player. But there are hints that the Packers won't wait an eternity for Couch to make up his mind. Right now, according to agent Tom Condon, there is "nothing" going on with the Packers. Discussions have hit an impasse and someone is going to have to make a move to get beyond the inertia. The guess here is that someone will be Packers executives.
Maybe even more surprising than the lack of action on the Couch front is the absence of extension talks between the New York Jets and quarterback Chad Pennington. Although some outlets continue to hint that discussions are moving along, folks close to Pennington insist there is nothing happening, and that there has yet to be substantive dialogue. There hasn't even been a casual discussion since the NFL scouting combine. The Jets have a lot of balls in the air right now, as the team tries to secure a stadium of its own on the West End of Manhattan, but getting Pennington re-upped before he begins the final season on his contract should be a top priority. Having to use a franchise marker on Pennington, which the Jets would do if an extension can't be consummated, would only create acrimony. New York also has to deal with defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham (who will play linebacker in many situations this season), each of whom also is entering the final season of his contract, and might not be able to keep both of them. Keeping the star quarterback, though, is a must.
Anyone remember Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams? Yeah, seems like a long time since we've heard anything about either of the underclassmen who were in, then out, of the 2004 draft. Not surprisingly, the camps of both players are more than a little boggled by the fact an appellate court has yet to rule on the Clarett case. They don't know quite how to interpret the long deliberation, but seem to agree the tea leaves don't look too favorable, even for having the players included in a supplemental draft during the summer. Athletic department officials have said they will do whatever they can to help Williams regain his NCAA eligibility if he desires, but word is that some academic shortcomings could make that difficult. Ohio State officials, to no one's surprise, haven't even hinted they would offer aid to Clarett.
Interesting story by Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal last week, citing the plan by the NFL Network to carry 54 preseason games this summer, and the concerns of team marketing officials with that blueprint. It seems that some of the NFL Network broadcasts will run out-of-market games simultaneous to the games being aired in local markets and, given that overlap, there are issues with local TV rights deals. A fan in Cincinnati, for instance, might have the option of watching a Patriots preseason game on the NFL Network, even as the Bengals are being aired at the same time. While all 32 franchises share equally in the national network contracts, the local revenues from rights fees aren't shared, and are negotiated by the individual clubs. There are also some issues surrounding the NFL's national deal with Sirius satellite radio. "You have the network taking content you possess and profiting from it," Eagles senior vice president Mark Donovan told SBJ. No owner will ever bite the hand that feeds more than $70 million per year in national television rights fees into his coffers. But there are legitimate concerns with the NFL Network deal that require clarification and, pardon the pun, fine-tuning.
We noted two weeks ago that, despite tying for the NFL lead in interceptions (nine) for 2003, Minnesota Vikings free safety Brian Russell signed just a one-year contract for the league two-year veteran minimum base salary of $380,000. That's because the Vikings declined to offer Russell, who didn't win the starting job until training camp, a multi-year deal. And the reason for that: Despite all of his interceptions, 95 tackles and 10 pass deflections, Minnesota coaches still aren't completely sold on the former San Diego State standout and onetime undrafted free agent. The Vikings feel that Russell is deficient in some areas, notably his open-field tackling skills, and are not convinced yet that he is the long-term answer at the position. "He's not the most physical guy and, let's face it, he got a lot of interceptions on tipped balls and overthrows," said one Vikings staffer. So look for Minnesota to afford two-year veteran Willie Offord, a third-round choice in the 2002 draft, a chance to unseat the incumbent. The league's interceptions leader one season bounced from his starting spot the next? Uh, it could happen, folks.
Last week's suggestion in this space regarding the Saints, that owner Tom Benson might finally have reached the end of his loyalty fuel tank with the state of Louisiana facing a $10 million-$12 million shortfall on a $15 million payment due the team June 1, elicited a call from club executive vice president Arnold Fielkow. The point man on negotiations with the state, Fielkow strongly reiterated Benson's intention to keep the team right where it currently resides, and shot down any rumors the Saints could be headed to the Left Coast. Given ownership's ties to New Orleans, we can't disagree with Fielkow, and he certainly knows a lot more about backroom politics, especially Louisiana-style, than do we. Notable, though, was this thought from Fielkow: "We do have a contract with the state and we would hope they will honor that contract." That could be difficult and one wonders how much Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who inherited a $186 million deal that was negotiated by her predecessor, will dig in her heels. She has already said the state will not dig into its general fund to make up the shortage. And a firm hired by the state to study the contract has recommended that the deal be reworked and that the Saints assume more responsibility and increased risk. Club officials are scheduled to meet with the governor on Friday and, since we're heading to New Orleans for a weekend of family business, we're willing to bet an order of beignets at Café Du Monde that the situation gets a lot worse before it gets better. OK, so Benson isn't looking longingly West, but that doesn't mean the city won't become The Big Uneasy while the two sides battle over money that Louisiana claims it doesn't have and can't raise.
The likely comeback of Carolina Panthers strong-side linebacker Mark Fields, who missed the team's Super Bowl season last year as he battled Hodgkin's disease, already ranks as the early-line favorite for the feel-good story of 2004. But while there seems little doubt Fields will resume his career, and regain his starting spot in camp, Carolina officials may adopt a cautionary stance in coming weeks. Fields hopes to be back on the field June 2, when the Panthers get back to organized offseason workouts, and he may fulfill that goal. But there is going to be plenty of discussion -- including team doctors, specialists, and Carolina coaches and executives -- before Fields jogs out back into the huddle. There are some who feel that Fields will be better served continuing to build up his strength and delaying his return until the start of camp. No matter when Fields comes back, his story will be a remarkable one, but the Panthers figure to be very prudent in determining when he begins practicing again.
Here are two young wide receivers to watch in 2004, two former Tennessee stars that you might consider adding to your fantasy team, maybe in the middle round of your draft: Donté Stallworth of New Orleans and Cincinnati's Kelley Washington. Entering his third season, and having worked significantly harder at his offseason conditioning, Stallworth is getting rave reviews from the Saints staff this spring. The same hamstring problems that slowed him in college have limited Stallworth to only 10 starts in two seasons, and he has just 67 catches for 1,079 yards. Stallworth, who has now moved ahead of Jerome Pathon in the starting lineup, could surpass the two-year figures this season. Washington has also been an eye-opener in the Bengals workouts. More mature in his second year, and an improved route-runner, Washington could provide first-year starter Carson Palmer a big target with deep speed, a receiver who might take some of the pressure off emerging Bengals star Chad Johnson.
In the NFL as well as in life, disenchanted Green Bay cornerback Mike McKenzie is likely to discover the hard way in coming weeks that timing is everything. Had McKenzie been an unrestricted free agent at the outset of this year's signing period, he would be a rich young man right now, given the manner in which teams threw good money at some cornerbacks of dubious pedigree. But toward the end of the 2001 season, poised on the cusp of restricted free agency and only a year removed from unfettered freedom, McKenzie made a decision that, 2˝ years later, he probably regrets. He sold off his free-agency rights, signing a five-year, $17.1 million contract extension with the Packers, a deal that included a $3.5 million signing bonus. And now, to no one's surprise, that deal is obsolete, surpassed by dozens of cornerback contracts signed the last couple years. And, likewise, to no one's surprise, McKenzie is ticked off and wants to be traded. To that end, he has retained superagent Drew Rosenhaus, one of the most resourceful and adroit guys in the business. But even by Rosenhaus' standards -- and the crafty agent has been known to pull a rabbit out of a hat before -- this is going to be a difficult impasse to resolve, because the Packers hold virtually every trump card. McKenzie has three seasons left on his contract and, if he followed through on his very transparent threat to retire, would have to repay the Packers a portion of his original signing bonus, and then base salary that the club converted into a signing bonus in 2003. Green Bay officials have granted the five-year veteran and Rosenhaus (his fifth different agent since he entered the NFL in 1999) permission to seek a trade. But there appear to be no other franchises inclined to meet the Packers' asking price, first- and fifth-rounders, to acquire McKenzie. Some cornerback-needy teams to whom we spoke suggested they might part with a third-rounder pick to get him. One club hinted it might surrender a second-rounder. But the widely held perception is that McKenzie, still arguably among the top 20 corners in the NFL, has lost a step. And in a 2004 season when officials have been told to emphasize the five-yard "jam" rule, secondary coaches covet speed now over spunk. Maybe the ever-creative Rosenhaus, whom we'd love to have in our corner in any negotiating street fight, can transform this mess into something positive. But if he can't locate any teams willing to part with a first-rounder, it's going to be very interesting to see just how the cornerback responds to the reality of his plight. A plight, by the way, that he created for himself by essentially bargaining away his free-agent rights back in 2001.
Word from the Bay Area is that San Francisco second-round pick Justin Smiley, the guard from Alabama, was absolutely tossing defensive linemen around at the 49ers' recent minicamp. And, yeah, his victims included perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Bryant Young, who, even in decline, is still a pretty tough hombre. The 49ers have made a lot of low-priced moves to bring in some veterans to patch the line. But the best move they seem to have made, and one that should pay dividends for a long time, was taking Smiley off the board with the 46th overall selection.
There are 10 undrafted college free agents this year who received signing bonuses of more than $15,000. The leader of the pack was offensive tackle Brad Lekkerkerker of California-Davis, who cashiered $25,000 from the Houston Texans. Seven players banked bonus checks of $20,000: Washington corner Roc Alexander (Broncos), Northwestern safety Louis Ayeni (Colts), tailback Ran Carthon of Florida (Colts), offensive tackle Tyson Clabo of Wake Forest (Broncos), Georgia free safety Kentrell Curry (Browns), Duke linebacker Ryan Fuller (Cowboys), and Florida guard Shannon Snell (Broncos). Pitt fullback Lousaka Polite (Cowboys) and defensive tackle Jon Bradley of Arkansas State (Eagles) each received $17,500.
Stat of the week: Because of their expansion status, the Cleveland Browns received "double" picks in the 1999 and 2000 drafts, and exercised 24 selections in those lotteries. Of those two dozen players, just five remain under contract to the Browns, and one of those is quarterback Tim Couch, who will be released next month. There are just two starters from the group, and 13 of the 24 are no longer in the league.
Punts: Here's a great irony: On Tuesday, when Miami tailback Ricky Williams spent five minutes telling the local media that he could not discuss his alleged positive test for marijuana, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was a guest at the Dolphins complex. In 2001, Thomas wrote the majority opinion upholding a ban on using marijuana for medicinal purposes. … The three-year contract that fourth-round tight end Tim Euhus signed with Buffalo this week includes a signing bonus of $321,500 and minimum base salaries of $230,000 (for 2004), $305,000 (2005) and $385,000 (2006). … Minnesota fourth-round tailback Mewelde Moore signed a four-year deal and the signing bonus was $394,000. He will earn minimum salaries all four years, the same as Euhus through the first three seasons, then $460,000 in 2007.… Baltimore coaches are said to be excited about how wide receiver Kevin Johnson, acquired from Jacksonville in a draft day trade, has already fit into the team's offense.… Free agent defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who some felt would retire after a poor 2003 season in Oakland, is beginning to draw some interest and could visit a few teams in the next week or so. … Jacksonville is still talking with defensive end Tony Brackens, whom the Jaguars released early in the spring, about coming back at a reduced salary. But there are several other teams, and Green Bay could be one of them, courting Brackens as a situational pass rusher.
The last word: "Why do they test everybody in the 40[-yard dash]? How many times do you see a lineman take more than two steps? And how many times have you seen any player run 40 yards in a straight line? Then they use the maximum reps in a 225-pound bench press. How many times do you competitively push weight on a play? All I want is a guy that can rip the other guy all the way across the field, with explosion. They're using a bad selection of tests. If I'm sending a soldier to Iraq, why teach [him to speak] German? The NFL is moronic in the way that they test people and the things they ask their people to do." -- Charles Poliquin, the personal trainer for Miami Dolphins wide receiver David Boston, questioning the training and player evaluation methods of NFL teams.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.