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Popularity of 3-4 challenges talent evaluators

Discussion in 'American Football' started by Johnny Lightning, Feb 23, 2009.

  1. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

    Feb 7, 2006
    By Casey Pearce, Chargers.com


    In the 2004 draft, the Chargers, who were making the transition from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4, drafted Shaun Phillips in the fourth round. Phillips was a 255-pound defensive end in college, but San Diego thought he could excel at outside linebacker in their new scheme.

    Looking back, Chargers Director of Player Personnel feels fortunate that San Diego found such a good fit so late in the draft.

    “With so many teams moving to the 3-4, there’s a lot higher demand on the smaller defensive ends who move to linebacker in the NFL,” Raye said. “It’s hard to imagine getting a guy like Shaun Phillips in the fourth round now.”

    When the Chargers made the transition to their current 3-4 scheme prior to the 2004 season, there were just four teams that primarily used the 3-4. That list included New England, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Houston, although the Texans have since switched back to a 4-3 base.

    Over the last five years, several teams have made the same move as the Chargers. Green Bay and Denver have announced their intention to change to a 3-4 next season, and as many a dozen teams could be in the scheme in 2009. San Francisco, Cleveland, Miami and the Jets have all made the move in the last five years.

    That means events like this weekend’s NFL Scouting Combine have more teams looking for similar parts, which can make things a little harder on teams’ personnel staffs.

    “When we made the switch, there weren’t as much competition for some of the players we were looking for,” Raye said. “Now everybody is looking for similar types of players that fit the scheme.”

    In addition to versatile outside linebackers like Phillips, the 3-4 requires inside linebackers who can handle multiple responsibilities such as blitzing, dropping into pass coverage and handling the run. Teams generally like one “thumper,” who can come up and make a big hit and one more athletic player who can run sideline to sideline.

    Nose tackle is another position that has grown in demand with the proliferation of the 3-4. True 3-4 nose tackles capable of handling the double team, guys like Jamal Williams, Pittsburgh’s Casey Hampton and New England’s Vince Wilfork aren’t in abundance.

    “If you don’t have a guy that can play the nose, the system just can’t work,” Raye said. “Those guys are hard to find and they’re harder to find when you’ve got a lot of teams looking for them. We’re fortunate that we’ve got one in Jamal Williams.”

    Adding to the challenge is the fact that not many college programs run the 3-4, so teams have to make projections based on a players skills set even though they’ve never been asked to do some of the things they’ll have to in the NFL.

    “It's always a challenge for us. We're kind of used to it now,” Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said Thursday from Indianapolis. “When we look at the college kids and the 260-pound kid or the 255-pound guy, can they make the transition and be able to do the things they are going to need to do from a coverage standpoint? That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent and it also reminds you that you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop.”

    One reason for the current popularity of the 3-4 has to do with the success teams are currently enjoying in the scheme. Last season, four of the six AFC playoff participants – Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami and the Chargers – ran 3-4 defenses. The Steelers won their second Super Bowl in four seasons with the scheme.

    The increased competition has caused Raye and those in his field to fight the temptation to move players up on the draft board based on their ability to fit the scheme.

    “I don’t want to say that you overvalue them, but you have to be a little more diligent with those guys that fit,” Raye said. “You don’t want to bump a guy’s grade because he can play in your scheme, but you’ve got to get players who can play the parts. It’s a challenge, but that’s what our jobs are all about.”

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