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Trend at DE is toward smaller, faster players

During the NFL combine last month, the defensive coordinator from a team that employs a 3-4 front was standing in a hallway, chatting it up with a reporter, when Clemson star Gaines Adams, the top-rated defensive end prospect in this year's draft, wandered by on his way to an interview appointment.

Long and lithe, at nearly 6-feet-5 and 258 pounds, even just meandering through one of the mazelike corridors of the Indiana Convention Center, the smooth-moving Adams looked like a premier athlete.

It was enough to elicit a wolf-whistle from the defensive coordinator.

"That guy," said the coordinator, ogling Adams enviously, "looks like a damned greyhound, doesn't he? Great player. Really going to be big-time, I think. I love him. But what I need right now [on the defensive line] is a big, ol' St. Bernard."

Good luck finding one.

No matter how dogged the search, locating a defensive end with the kind of prototype size once required at the position has become increasingly difficult in the draft, and even in free agency. Fixated on attacking the pocket and not as concerned anymore with defending the run, colleges are growing end prospects lean, not necessarily mean, these days.

For a team seeking some meat at the position, it's tough trying to locate guys who are stout among the collection of relative stringbeans that now populates the defensive end spot. A strongside end like Kevin Carter, who came into the league a dozen years ago at nearly 300 pounds but still blessed with terrific movement skills, is a dinosaur.

"The 280- or 290-pound end is disappearing," acknowledged Buffalo Bills defensive line coach Bill Kollar. "You look at the ends coming into the league now, and they all kind of look like basketball players, you know? [There's] not a lot of bulk out there."

Consider the most highly regarded ends in the 2007 draft class: The average height and weight of the 12 ends cited most often by league scouts to ESPN.com as worthy of being taken in the first two rounds is 6-4 1/8 and 268.3 pounds, according to measurements recorded at the combine. Seven of the 12 are at least 6-foot-4 and four of those are 6-foot-5 or taller. At the same time, six weigh less than 270 pounds and only two, Jamaal Anderson of Arkansas and Nebraska's Adam Carriker weigh more than 285 pounds.

Of the eight ends who participated in the bench press segment of the combine, five were able to post 25 or more repetitions of the standard 225-pound weight. More notable, though, was that five of the eight who were timed in the 40-yard dash were clocked at 4.70 seconds or faster, reinforcing the notion that, even at end, it's a sprinter's game.

Little wonder that Carriker, whose huge frame stretches to 6-foot-6, is rapidly moving up the draft boards of teams that deploy in 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. Carriker is a two-way perimeter defender, who is equally effective anchoring against the run or chasing the quarterback. At the combine, where Carriker weighed 296 pounds, he registered a solid 33 repetitions on the bench press but still ran a 4.90 time in the 40.

The explosive Gaines, not surprisingly, clocked the best 40-yard time (4.64 seconds) among defensive ends, but opted not to do the bench press. Jarvis Moss of Florida, another lean, athletic end, was timed at 4.70, but did only 16 bench-press lifts. Yet the angular Moss, 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, is more typical of the kind of body type the premier end prospects increasingly possess.

"There's been a definite trickle-down effect," allowed Indianapolis defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, whose team plays with undersized, upfield-type ends in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. "Everybody feels like you've got to sack the quarterback. At our level, at the college level, everywhere. So the colleges have taken guys who, oh, 10 years ago, would have been linebackers, and now, suddenly, they're ends. So what you get now are a lot of the 250- or 260-pound [ends]. And if you don't play the kind of scheme that features those guys, well, you're [in trouble]."

For the 3-4 teams in the league, the emphasis on sparely-built speed rushers has been both a blessing and a curse. It has permitted those teams to draw from an ever-burgeoning pool of hybrid defenders, "edge" players who can stand up on first and second down, then get down in a three-point stance on passing downs. The flip side, though, is that the 3-4 clubs struggle to get the 290-pound ends it takes to play the defense effectively.

Which is why a guy such as Arkansas' Anderson, who weighs 288 pounds and can hold up at the point of attack, yet is still a proven pass rusher, is so valuable.

"You name the style," said Anderson as the combine, "and I think I can play it. And there aren't a lot of ends who can say that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.