‘Endbackers’ are among the toughest reads in draft projections

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."

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.

"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.

"It is a bit of a challenge," Graves said of that scouting method. "We had a guy in Schofield who had his hand on the ground much of his college career. He had to go through that transition. But still, he's going forward [off the snap] and that's the common element, If they are used to going forward, they can make the transition a little bit better than they can if they have to drop [into coverage]. There is some of that inherent in that position. It is a challenge. You have to believe the player can do it. It just gets down to athletic ability, and whether he has the speed and all those things we look at to determine if the player can operate in space.

John Schneider's Seattle Seahawks don't play 3-4 as a primary concept -- at least, not in the way you'd normally recognize it -- but they do feature concepts in which there are three down linemen, three linebackers, and a hybrid "LEO" end whose responsibilities switch between those of an end and a linebacker. Chris Clemons plays that role for the Seahawks, but head coach Pete Carroll has used that concept since the 1990s, when he was a defensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. Chris Doleman gave way to Willie McGinest, and when Carroll went to USC, Clay Matthews was among those players who could jet around a left tackle, or stunt inside with his hand on the ground or standing up. Thus, Matthews was able to make the transition to Dom Capers' 3-4 defense in Green Bay.

"They can do it because they have the flexibility in their hips to do it, and they have the agility to do it," Schneider said of the attributes common to straight endbackers or hybrid LEOs. "Some guys just have really tight hips, really tight ankles, and they just can't do it -- they can't bend and get around the corner, or put their foot in the ground and come back underneath. Some guys just don't have a plan. But if a guy has the agility and flexibility, you can see that here [at the combine], and we'll focus on that more when we get to their individual workouts, too. Can a guy flip his hips and drop [into coverage]? Because the 3-4 guys, they're basically rushing the passer 70 percent of the time, and dropping into the curl and the flat 30 percent of the time. It shouldn't be all that difficult, but you'd be surprised at how tight some guys are."

You'd also be surprised at how many hours of scouting, and how much guesswork, will go into discovering which 2012 draft prospects might be able to fill that role in the NFL. Here are a few players we believe are able to make that transition.

Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6-1, 264) -- Ingram has dropped 12 pounds since the Senior Bowl; certainly he wants to show that he can not only set the edge with speed, but show flair and flexibility in pass coverage. He's met with teams using both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, and he believes he can work well in either scheme.

Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (6-1, 272) -- Anyone playing in Nick Saban's defense is going to learn to do different things, and Upshaw pointed out his increasing skill set in his combine media session. "We had a nickel package where I played a 4-3 as the end, away from the tight end, in a five-technique, hand-on-the-ground, dropping out of a three-point stance in coverage if the D-end had to. So I'm real comfortable with doing that. I did a little of that at the Senior Bowl with the Redskins. We played an odd front where I was also an end, but with three down linemen, so I'm real comfortable playing with my hand in the dirt."

Nick Perry, USC (6-3, 250) -- Perry was an end at USC, but remember who recruited him -- yep, that Pete Carroll guy, who likes linemen able to play multiple roles. He's going to have perhaps the steepest learning curve of any name on this list, especially in pass coverage, but the burst off the line is pure endbacker stuff.

Shea McClellin, Boise State (6-3, 248) -- On Saturday, McClellin told me that Boise State already plays a fairly decent number of hybrid fronts and sub packages, which has him outside as a pure edge rusher in some 3-4 and 4-2-5 defenses. He has the speed off the edge, and the ability to drop into coverage, that will have many NFL teams looking at him as a player who can make the leap.

Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy (6-2, 250) -- As we pointed out in his Shutdown 50 scouting report, Massaquoi has all the athletic ability you could ever hope for in a linebacker. He runs intermediate coverage with safety speed, and drags running backs down with the power you'd expect from smaller defensive ends. He's not a big name like the others on this list, but in a defense like those run by Wade Phillips, Dick LeBeau, and Dom Capers, Massaquoi could lap those more well-known endbackers down the road.