Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will break down how 12 top 2011 NFL draft picks can immediately impact their new clubs.
There was no question that, for the Denver Broncos, selecting Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller with the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft made a great deal of sense from a talent perspective. But for scheme fit – especially since the team was switching from a 3-4 base defense to the 4-3 concepts preferred by new head coach John Fox when he ran defenses for the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers? That was a different story.
Many thought that Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus(notes), who went to the Buffalo Bills with the next pick, would be a better short-term solution for the Broncos because their interior defensive line was so weak in 2010. And when you already have an elite pass rusher in Elvis Dumervil(notes), who put up 17 sacks in 2009 and lost his 2010 season to a pectoral tear, the addition of Miller seems more like too much of a good thing … and too many problems in other areas.
What mitigates the Miller-over-Dareus move, outside of the pure "best player available" mantra, is the versatility of each player. If Miller and Dumervil were limited to rushing the passer from the edge, it would make little sense to choose Miller over Dareus. But Miller has shown the capacity for versatility: Though he lined up for A&M at the "Joker" position, alternating between hand-up and hand-down looks outside the offensive tackles, he also impressed in the Senior Bowl by dropping back into coverage as if he'd been doing it for years. And in Denver's hybrid three-man concepts, Dumervil really had been doing that for years.
Fox's Panthers actually rushed five defenders pretty frequently for a supposed 4-3 team, but a high percentage of those blitzes would see two linebackers set up between the tackles and one dropping back at the snap – and that setup doesn't really suit the talents of Miller and Dumervil. More interesting was the blitz look the Panthers gave the Atlanta Falcons on the first play of Fox's last game as Carolina's head coach.
With linebacker Nic Harris(notes) (59) creeping up to the weak side and then dropping into coverage at the snap, that side of the defense resembled what the Broncos did fairly frequently with Dumervil in 2009, when they ran three-man hybrid fronts which looked more like front concepts with four at the line but only three down linemen. On the other side, end Charles Johnson(notes) (95) switched gaps with tackle Derek Landri(notes) (61) and looped inside, blowing through an open gap to disrupt the timing of quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) and cause an incomplete pass.
One of Miller's most impressive traits as a collegiate "endbacker" was his ability to shoot inside gaps just as easily as he beat tackles outside – not unlike Green Bay Packers sackmaster Clay Matthews, who racked up several of his 13.5 sacks in 2010 by way of stunts and loops which had him exploiting gaps between the tackles.
The value of the Panthers' inside stunt was that the Falcons' right tackle had to pick up the outside move and the right guard left the gate open by being confused as to which way to go. That's how Landri – a 6-foot-2, 290-pound rotational player – was able to get a valuable double team, if only for a moment.
No matter how great the Miller/Dumervil combo is – and based on the talents of both players, the duo will rival the best pass-rush teams from Day One – the only way to solve the interior issues will be to stack the right personnel where they belong. Fox has shown that with scheme alteration and confusion, it's possible to make things look bigger and better than they really are.
Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo's Shutdown Corner blog and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.
- Von Miller