Guys like Clay Matthews don't grow on trees -- especially at his position. (Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS -- With more NFL teams running base 3-4 or 5-2 defensive fronts in recent years, and given the success of pass-rushing outside linebackers (we'll call them "endbackers" for short), in those schemes, you might be surprised to learn that those same teams generally have a difficult time scouting and finding the next James Harrison, Tamba Hali, or Clay Matthews among the defensive ends and outside linebackers in the college ranks. Because so few college programs play 3-4 defense as a base concept, and many are just now catching up to the concept of hybrid defenses, it's a guessing game when projecting for success at that position -- especially when looking at high-round prospects.
During the media portion of the 2012 scouting combine, Shutdown Corner asked several different personnel executives about transitioning players to that position, and the difficulties involved.
Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith, who oversaw an amazing defensive transformation as his defense switched from 4-3 to 3-4 in 2011, took Arizona's Brooks Reed in the second round, based on the notion espoused by new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips that Reed could play the role of edge rusher in Phillips' trademark 5-2 concepts. The undersized college end responded by racking up six sacks after Mario Williams' season-ending injury.
"In the sense of a transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it started actually a couple weeks ago a year ago, when we hired Wade. Meeting with our scouts, sitting down with Wade and talking to him and getting a real idea of what he was looking for; watching a ton of tape with him and the defensive coaches and gaining some insight as to what type of player fit into the defense. Then, going to the Senior Bowl and corralling the scouts and talking to them. Making sure that everybody understood what we were looking for. And then just going through the process and again, staying true to the value that we placed on players."
The Texans looked at more than the hair when betting that Brooks Reed could be their Clay Matthews. (Getty Images)
What did Smith and his coaches see in Reed, and what is he generally looking for when transitioning a player to that endbacker role? "I think the first thing is pass rush. Is there some sort of natural pass-rush ability, is what you look for. Then you look at the athleticism. Then you look at what type of football instincts and all the other things that kind of come on. One of the things we put a premium on is pass rush. And you mentioned the projection; when we made this transition last year, we did not have one linebacker on our team, whether you talk about a Brooks Reed or any other player, or Mario -- any of them that had played in that position.
"They were all projections. We were fortunate. Even projecting [former middle linebacker Brian] Cushing inside was a projection. It worked out for us. I think have to say that in that context of our defense and the way that they performed, in light of how we handled adversity and injury through the year, I cannot say how effective a job our coaching staff did. I mean, it was impressive to watch those guys week-in and week-out get the team ready regardless of who was going on the field and had them out there executing on a high level.
Trent Baalke's San Francisco 49ers played more four-man fronts in 2011, but Baalke and his coaches had to look at Aldon Smith and see that specific kind of sub-package pass rusher in him. As he said this week, it's a bit of a crapshoot -- no matter how talented the player may be. "They're all projections, right? They don't play it in college. You don't get a chance outside of maybe a few opportunities to see it on film, dropping and doing the things you're going to ask him to do as a 3-4 'backer. And then you get the pro day workout or the combine workout or a combination of the two to judge whether they can or can't do it. But that's really not the most important thing for that position. They're getting paid to be pass-rushers. That's No. 1. Then, they're going to set edges and play the run and do those kinds of things. And what they give you in the drop [pass coverage] game has to be just good enough."
Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has specific challenges in finding those endbackers -- not only do the Steelers run a 3-4 base defense, but Dick LeBeau's defensive concepts will have those players playing just about anywhere and doing just about anything. When projecting players like the highly-drafted LaMarr Woodley, and the bargain-bin wonder James Harrison, one has to stick to one's system, and identify the characteristics common to the best players at that position. Not only do those edge rushers have to get to the quarterback, but they also have to drop into coverage -- a skill that Woodley, in particular, displays at a high level on a frequent basis.
LaMarr Woodley's versatility made him a sure bet. (Getty Images)
"Usually, you're not seeing those outside linebackers playing a position you can project them to," Colbert said. So, there's a lot of guesswork involved with how they'll be able to cover, just because that's something you don't get to see a lot of the 4-3 defensive ends do in college football. You'll see some of that evidence when they do zone drops in their schemes. A lot of it will be dependent on their individual pro day workouts, and you kind of fill it out with that."
Arizona Cardinals GM Rod Graves moved his own defense to a very aggressive, Steelers-style scheme in 2011, and the results were immediate. With defensive coordinator Ray Horton pulling off one of the more impressive coaching jobs of the 2011 season, the Cards were able to feature unheralded pass rushers like O'Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington to great effect.
Read More »from ‘Endbackers’ are among the toughest reads in draft projections