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January 27, 2011

College Football Report - 2011 NFL Draft Stacked With Potential 3-4 Defensive Talent:

There is a growing trend in the NFL. It's supplied by college misfit players of the past and prototypical athletes of the present, one that’s been gaining in popularity for 37 years: the 3-4 defensive scheme.

In the 1940s Oklahoma Head Coach Bud Wilkinson developed the 3-4 defensive front. The scheme’s numbers refer to the three down lineman and four standing linebackers, as opposed to the typical 4-3 defensive formation.

The 3-4 didn’t hit the NFL until 1973, though, brought in by former Oklahoma coach, Chuck Fairbanks. Fairbanks learned the defense while serving under Wilkinson at Oklahoma, and was the first to bring the formation to the league when he accepted the New England Patriots head coaching job.

Since installed in the NFL, the defense has had its up and down years. As of late, however, the defense has caught on like a wild fire.

During the 2010 season, 15 of the 32 NFL teams ran a base 3-4 defense. Many additional teams implemented some form of the 3-4 into their base 4-3 schemes. Of the 12 teams that made the NFL playoffs this season, half ran 3-4 defenses. The two Super Bowl teams – Pittsburgh and Green Bay – are both 3-4 defensive teams.

Defensive coordinators Dick LeBeau of Pittsburgh and Dom Capers of Green Bay have been two of the better defensive minds in the game and their versions of the 3-4 can be credited to their success.

Six of the last 10 Super Bowl Champions have run 3-4 schemes and this season, a seventh will make the list.

There is one challenge to running the defense, though, a team must have a strict set of players to run the defense effectively. When a defense has the right players in place it works with great success like in the Steelers, Packers, Patriots, Ravens and Jets case.

In other circumstances, like in the case of the Broncos, Redskins and Cardinals, who ranked 32, 31 and 29 respectively in total defense this season, the 3-4 can be a burn.

Unlike other defenses, the 3-4 requires untraditional skill-sets from players.

It starts along the defensive line, where a massive nose tackle and two above average size defensive ends line the front.

Nose tackles like the Patriots Vince Wilfork (6-2, 340) and the Packers B.J. Raji (6-2, 337) are a must. Ends with size such as the Steelers Brett Keisel (6-5, 290) and the Ravens Haloti Ngata (6-4, 350) are just as important.

A solid duo of outside linebackers who can rush the passer, defend the run and drop into coverage all with ease are also a must. A lot of times, under-sized, athletic defensive ends from college are brought in to make the transition to outside linebacker in 3-4 schemes.

The Ravens Terrell Suggs (6-3, 260), Steelers Lamarr Woodley (6-2, 265), Cowboys Demarcus Ware (6-4, 262) and Chiefs Tamba Hali (6-3. 275) all made the transition from defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL and all are among the best in the league.

Two of the other best, in the Steelers James Harrison (6-0, 242) and Packers Clay Matthews (6-3, 255), are just athletic marvels who have excelled at rushing the passer.

Recent drafts have been littered with teams making moves and taking risks on potential 3-4 players. In 2009, eight teams spent their first round pick on a defensive players, either outside linebacker or defensive lineman.

In the case of the Packers, who drafted Raji and Matthews, Steelers, who drafted end Ziggy Hood and Redskins, who drafted outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, great success has followed.

The Chiefs spent the No. 3 overall pick on defensive end Tyson Jackson. Bills grabbed outside linebacker Aaron Maybin with the No. 11 pick. The Chargers drafted outside linebacker Larry English with pick No. 16 and Broncos took outside linebacker Robert Ayers at pick No. 18. All have struggled tremendously to fit into their new positions and defensive schemes.

The 2011 draft is completely stacked with potential first round defensive draft picks, many of whom will find themselves in new places in 3-4 schemes.

From defensive ends moving to outside linebacker, to traditional 4-3 ends moving to 3-4 ends, day one of the 2011 NFL Draft could host up to 18 players making the cut. Here are some to keep an eye on:

Outside Linebacker:

Ryan Kerrigan: 6-4, 255 – Purdue

Projection: Rd 1 – Fit: New England, San Diego, NY Jets

Kerrigan was a traditional end at Purdue, but has displayed tremendous athletic ability in Senior Bowl practices. He has a knack for getting after the passer and could absolutely excel as a standup linebacker.

Von Miller: 6-2, 237 – Texas A&M

Projection: Top 10 – Fit: Arizona, San Fran, Cleveland

A bit undersized, Miller has the ability to overpower bigger offensive lineman with his speed. He’s capable of fitting into a 4-3 or 3-4, but with such great pass rushing moves, expect a 3-4.

Ryan Houston: 6-3, 260 – Georgia

Projection: Rd 1 – Fit: New England, San Diego, Miami

One of the lone players who played in a base 3-4 in college, Houston is a exceptional pass rusher, but has the athleticism to drop into coverage with ease.

Aldon Smith: 6-5, 262 – Missouri

Projection: Top 20 – Fit: New England, Kansas City

Smith is a player whose stock has sky rocketed because of his versatility. A bit undersized for defensive end, more teams have been viewing Smith as a rush outside ‘backer.

Brooks Reed: (right) 6-3, 260 – Arizona

Projection: Rd 2 – Fit: San Diego, Baltimore, NY Jets, Green Bay

Reed has been standing out among defensive players at the Senior Bowl right now. He says 80 percent of teams want him as a linebacker and has shown the athleticism and dropping ability to make the move.

Akeem Ayers: 6-4, 255 – UCLA

Projection: Top 20 – Fit: Washington, Houston, Detroit, San Diego

Ayers projects more as a 4-3 outside linebacker at the next level as his pass rushing skills are less refined than the above, but he’s athletic and powerful enough to make the switch.

Defensive Line:

Cameron Jordon: 6-4, 290 – California

Projection: Top 15 – Fit: Washington, New England, San Diego, NY Jets

Jordon played most of his career as a 4-3 end, but has played some tackle. He could wind up as a 3-4 end (5 tech.) at the next level because of his size. He’s been unstoppable in Senior Bowl practices.

Marcell Dareus: 6-4, 310 – Alabama

Projection: Top 10 – Fit: Buffalo, Arizona, Cleveland, San Fran

Dareus is an absolute power along the defensive front. Used as a 5-technique at Alabama, Dareus should fit as a 3-4 end or even a nose, if he grows, with little transition time in the NFL.

Cameron Heyward: 6-5, 288 – Ohio State

Projection: Rd 1 – Fit: Jacksonville, San Diego, New England

Heyward opted not to attend the Senior Bowl, which may hurt him in the long run. He’s got tremendous power and size, which leads some to believe he may work more in a 3-4 scheme.

J.J. Watt: 6-6, 295: Wisconsin

Projection: Rd 1 – Fit: New England, San Diego, Tampa Bay

Watt came on this season, becoming an above average pass rusher, but he also uses his big body to eat up space as a run defender very well. The Chargers may be an ideal fit for Watt in the middle of the first round.

Allen Bailey: (right) 6-4, 280 – Miami (Fl)

Projection: Rd 1 – Fit: San Diego, Baltimore, Oakland, Atlanta

Bailey has had an up and down Senior Bowl week thus far. He wooed scouts at the weigh in and in 11-on-11 work, but has struggled in 1-on-1 bouts. His phenomenal inside strength may suit him better in a 3-4.

Christian Ballard: 6-4, 290 – Iowa

Projection: Late Rd 1- Rd 2 – Fit: San Fran, NY Jets, Green Bay

Ballard is a fine example of a player using the Senior Bowl week to greatly improve their draft stock. He’s moved into the late first round in some scouts minds. Played mostly tackle in college, but should make the switch to 3-4 end in the NFL.

Photo Credit: Bailey - Alix Drawec/AP Photo

Photo Credit: Reed - Mark Evans/Tucson Citizen

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All writing and views subject to © Drew P. Kochanny, All Rights Reserved. Photo's credited to rights owner.