Every NFL team has its own theories and formulas when it comes to the science of the draft, but no matter how specific people get, there are certain positional and schematic issues that cause geniuses to look like goofballs. Basketball players become brilliant tight ends. Spread-offense quarterbacks put up historic numbers in college and can't even bust the CFL at the pro level. And the increasing number of NFL teams running 3-4 defenses find it more and more difficult to find key personnel in the draft, for one simple reason -- college teams don't run the 3-4 as their base defense very much.
In fact, of the 120 BCS teams, only three -- Alabama, Cal, and West Virginia -- run a full-time three-man front. That makes the accurate selection of specific players, especially two-gap nose tackles than can dominate the point of attack, more difficult. This is the case even though the 2010 class of defensive tackles may be the deepest ever. As college teams put forth their abilities to create NFL opportunities to recruits, you could see more teams making the switch. This schism was on the mind of more than one AFC coach during the media breakfast at the Owner's Meetings.
"I think that there are always a number of guys in that situation in the draft," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the "conversion ends", like Tennessee's Dan Williams, who are expected to move to nose at the pro level. "There are hardly any 3-4 teams in college football. Whoever plays on the end of the line, whether it's a linebacker, defensive end or a crash end, whatever you want to call them, those guys are going to play on the end of the line at the next level too. Figuring out who can do what, that's always a tough spot to break down in the draft."
And the "endbackers", 4-3 ends or outside linebackers who convert to edge rushers in 3-4-4 or 5-2-4 sets, are of equal importance -- something Belichick's been dealing with since his days coaching Lawrence Taylor under Bill Parcells in the 1980s. "It's a challenge, but again that's pretty much the way it's been you know going back to ... you could pick out most of those guys going back to Lawrence Taylor, and certainly [Mike] Vrabel, [Willie] McGinest, Chris Slade, [Rosevelt] Colvin, Tully [Banta-Cain], all those guys. Sure, it's a long list of them, guys who didn't play on their feet in college or played on their feet a minimal amount."
Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano knows all about the challenges of putting together a 3-4 front -- he's working around nose tackle Jason Ferguson's(notes) eight-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy precisely because guys who do what Ferguson does are so hard to find. Even as a 35-year-old free agent sure to play only half a season, he's still an attractive option.
"From our standpoint, as you know, Jason Ferguson's a guy that's been very good for us," Sparano said. "When we were in Dallas as well, but very much so when we were here in Miami. Obviously, Jason has the suspension. We're not happy with that, but at the end of the day, it's something that we have to deal with. When Jason got hurt this year, our tongue would've been hanging out to find a player like Jason Ferguson sitting out there at that time. We couldn't find a player like that. To have the ability to have a player like that when he comes back off a suspension I think is a positive thing for us. Of course, Jason, I love him to death, but he's not a young guy. I would say that all these (3-4) positions are positions we'd consider addressing in the draft."
At the Combine, Jets coach Rex Ryan told me about the incredible value of two-gappers, and he was watching every move made by ginormous nose tackle Terrence Cody at Alabama's recent Pro Day. "That might be one of the toughest parts of a 3-4," Ryan said in Indianapolis. "Basically your nose tackle, unless you are always moving to nose, if you are playing a standard 3-4 defense, then you've got a two-gap responsibility which means you got to be able to play the front-side A-gap and the backside A-gap at the same time. You generally need a dominant individual there. And that is what you have like a Kris Jenkins(notes), or a Ted Washington(notes) many years ago in Buffalo was one of the best two-gappers I have ever seen. A guy has to be active, he has got to be able to stay on his feet, his technique on releasing off of blocks has got to be outstanding. If not, you are really going to struggle at that spot."
Last year, the Chiefs and Packers were among the teams switching to the 3-4. In 2010, the Bills and Redskins are making the leap. To get the best recruits, more college teams will catch up to the new trends. In the meantime, you'll see players with specific skill sets suitable for 3-4 fronts sitting in the proverbial catbird seat.