DE class offers healthy mix
Need bulk? Versatility? This year's draft features wide range of talent at defensive end
INDIANAPOLIS -- In a column last week at the start of the annual NFL scouting combine, we noted that the collection of defensive ends assembled here for the workouts was conducive to the increase of 3-4 defensive fronts in the league, with many of the players at the position undersized and able to project to rush linebacker.
But the other shoe dropped in Indianapolis as well, and -- for the 13 teams in the league that deploy the 3-4 as their base defense now -- it was a veritable clodhopper. Not only was Lucas Oil Stadium filled with ends who were 260 pounds or less, but also with plenty of edge players in the 280-pounds-plus range.
Translation: There was something for everybody now utilizing the 3-4 front.
"I know when I looked around my [workout] group, there were a lot of big people," said South Carolina defensive end Clifton Geathers. "I'm talking big. Really big. And those are guys who can play a lot of positions up front for you."
Especially end in the 3-4 scheme. Although many scouts came here in search of "hybrid" defensive ends, undersized edge defenders who could make the transition to linebacker in the NFL and then move to rush-end on passing downs, there was a premium as well on the bigger ends who could play on first and second down and hold up as stout performers against the running game.
And the scouts found prospects for both positions.
"Having the [hybrid]-type guys is great," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, "but you've got to get to third-and-long to be able to use them. And unless you've got those big, active guys on the first two downs, stuffing the run, you aren't going to be able to get to situations where those upfield players can be effective."
By definition, the ends in a 3-4 must be bulkier than their 4-3 counterparts, and that beef is often difficult to find. But while 19 of the 42 end prospects here checked in at 260 pounds or less, at least a dozen (official combine weights were not yet published) ends tipped the scales at 280 pounds plus.
And those players are prime candidates to play end in the 3-4 front.
"I've played both, and I know a lot of [scouts] asked me about my experience in the 3-4," said Geathers, who is 6-foot-8 and weighed 299 pounds at the combine. "It seems like there's more emphasis now on the bigger ends. And that's good for me."
A likely mid- to late-round selection, Geathers impressed talent evaluators with his strong bloodlines: His father, Robert Sr., and uncle, James "Jumpy" Geathers, played in the NFL, and his brother, Robert Geathers, is a starting 4-3 defensive end in Cincinnati. But it was Clifton Geathers' immense frame -- when he stood up he was nearly as menacing as his uncle had been during 13 league seasons -- that most impressed scouts.
Said Dallas coach Wade Phillips, whose team uses the 3-4 front: "He's just big all over."
And 3-4 defenses certainly need that size.
The job description for an end in the 3-4 is dramatically different than that of a 4-3 end, and that is clear in their weight disparities. In 2009, the average weight of a 3-4 starting end in the NFL was 299.9 pounds; for a 4-3, it was 271.1 pounds. Of the league's 26 starting ends in the 3-4, all weighed 280 pounds or more, and 11 were 300 pounds or more. Just two of the 38 starting ends who played the 4-3 weighed more than 300 pounds. Nine were 260 pounds or less.
Not surprisingly, no 3-4 defensive end had more than seven sacks last season.
"I think the game is more about taking on the run, being able to hold your ground at the point [of attack], and just gobbling up blockers," said Alabama end Brandon Deaderick, who weighed 296 pounds at the combine. "It's kind of a no-glory [position], one where you don't get a lot of the tackles or the credit but the 3-4 teams all need that guy."
They'll find them in prospects such as Deaderick and Geathers, and several other good-sized ends.
The other position that historically has been difficult to fill for 3-4 teams is the nose tackle spot. AFC East blogger Tim Graham detailed last week the significance of the middle spot in the 3-4, and here is another indicator of how essential the position has become for so many teams: Between 1993 and 2009, only three nose tackles in the league were given the franchise tag in free agency. This year, there are three franchise nose tackles: Vince Wilfork (New England), Ryan Pickett (Green Bay) and Aubrayo Franklin (San Francisco).
Fortunately, the combine seemed to have its share of prospects in that area as well: Terrence Cody (Alabama), Dan Williams (Tennessee), Jared Odrick (Penn State) and Linval Joseph (East Carolina). Particularly for 3-4 teams, up-front size is a prerequisite. And although the early emphasis was on the multitude of hybrid prospects, there was plenty of size to go around as well.
"It's still a big man's game," said Whisenhunt. "And we've got a lot of big men here."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.