Teams placing premium on hybrid defenders
INDIANAPOLIS -- While becoming the model franchise the other 31 NFL teams aspire to be, the New England Patriots have fashioned a hybrid defensive position that many outside defenders would love to play.
In winning three Super Bowls in four seasons, the Patriots have crafted a double-duty role for outside linebackers that clearly intrigued some of the top "edge" defenders at the scouting combine.
"You look at linebackers like [Willie] McGinest and [Mike] Vrabel, and it's clear that the Patriots have figured out a way to make use of every ounce of talent those players have," said Maryland standout Shawne Merriman, a combination linebacker-defensive end and one of the fastest-rising prospects in this year's draft. "Used to be that, if you were a 'tweener,' you know, a guy who didn't quite fit into one position, nobody wanted you. But the Patriots, man, they've made it cool to be a 'tweener' now, you know?"
Defensive diversity, at least among front-seven players, is suddenly in vogue in a league where imitation always has been the most sincere measure of flattery. And in the copycat NFL, the Patriots' ever-morphing 3-4 scheme demands that any team attempting to duplicate it employ players with great versatility.
And so, in the world of supply and demand, scouting staffs are hustling to unearth hybrid defenders. And players who once might have been regarded as too small to play defensive end and perhaps too slow to be linebackers have enhanced their draft value.
With so many converts, eight teams figure to deploy the 3-4 front as their "base" defense in 2005, and at least three more expect to incorporate it into their repertoires as a complementary scheme. Thus, players such as Merriman are seen as two-way threats — an outside linebacker aligned in a stand-up, two-point stance on first and second downs, and a defensive end rushing the passer in nickel situations — capable of wreaking havoc from a variety of angles.
It isn't happenstance that 20 players at the combine are auditioning for league scouts at two different positions. Or that 18 of the 20 are either ends or linebackers who will work out at both defensive spots.
For years, when he was the Steelers' director of football operations, Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe analyzed undersized defensive ends by projecting how they might play as outside linebackers in Pittsburgh's 3-4 front. His uncanny ability to identify such hybrid players produced a string of Pro Bowl performers such as Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter.
"Clearly, with so many more teams playing the 3-4 now, it puts a bigger premium on those types of players," Donahoe acknowledged. "It upgrades good players who, maybe because of size or speed issues, couldn't really be pigeonholed into one [position]. I think you can see here [at the combine] that some of that is going on."
Prospects who have the ability to make an impact as combination defenders not only are embracing the concept of contributing at two spots but also are being embraced by the franchises anxious to fill the dual roles.
"Everybody wants the Terrell Suggs type of guy," University of Florida linebacker Channing Crowder said, referring to the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl combination defender. "It's a hot spot. It seems like teams want more athleticism at those edge positions. And it seems like there are a lot of players here capable of being that kind of two-way guy."
|“||It seems like teams want more athleticism at those edge positions. And it seems like there are a lot of players here capable of being that kind of two-way guy. ”|
|— Florida LB Channing Crowder|
Crowder played principally at inside linebacker for the Gators but often moved outside on passing downs. He has plenty of experience dropping into coverage and even lining up against slot receivers in some situations, but he covets an NFL role rushing the quarterback.
Asked if he preferred knocking down the passer as opposed to swatting down a pass, Crowder, who is named after Broadway star Carol Channing, laughed.
"C'mon, man, what do you think?" he said. "Quarterbacks, they're kind of like the pretty boys, OK? So every guy on defense, no matter where you're playing, is trying to lay out the quarterback. And when you play that outside position in the 3-4, at least the way the Patriots scheme it up, you get that opportunity. There are a lot of guys here, like some of the smaller ends and some bigger linebackers, who would love to play that spot."
One is defensive end DeMarcus Ware of tiny Troy (Ala.) State, a lesser-known player who possesses all the tools necessary for the hybrid position and whose draft stock has skyrocketed to the point that he could be chosen in the first round. Listed in college at 233 pounds, the 6-foot-4 Ware is now closer to 250. He has played in two- and three-point stances, standing up and with his hand on the ground, and is a pass-rushing machine.
Like many of his peers here, he acknowledged that the outside spot in a 3-4 scheme is a terrific fit for his skills. Next to Merriman, in fact, Ware might be the prospect who is best-suited to contribute instantly in the versatile role. Both defenders have received plenty of attention from scouts. And Merriman, an incredible physical specimen who checked in at 6-foot-4¼ and 272 pounds, could be the first defensive player chosen on April 23.
The ex-Terrapin carries his weight so well — he actually looks like he weighs in the 255-pound area — that he could probably add another 20 pounds effortlessly and be a full-time defensive end. But Merriman relishes the opportunity to make use of his versatility and said he hopes to be selected by a team that permits him to play the position that McGinest and Vrabel have popularized.
"I think, if you look at me on tape, I'm a do-it-all kind of player," Merriman said. "So why not put me in a defense that allows me to do it all?"
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .