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As 3-4 gains popularity, finding right fit for defensive linemen is key

INDIANAPOLIS -- The trick in assessing the defensive linemen in this year's draft is determining the category in which they fall.

No, not the position. Ends are ends. Tackles are tackles.

The question NFL teams are looking to answer between now and the April 25-26 draft is whether those players fit into a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.

For now, 11 teams, including three newcomers, run a 3-4. With a little more than a third of the league going to the scheme, there's an increase in the demand for 3-4 defensive linemen.

The ends and nose tackle in a 3-4 have very different responsibilities than the ends and tackles in a 4-3. They're primarily asked to occupy blockers while the linebackers make most of the plays, with outside linebackers providing the bulk of the pass rush. In a 4-3, ends and tackles generally are the main playmakers and are expected to generate most of the pressure on the quarterback.

Scouts and coaches at the NFL Scouting Combine are sorting through the crop of defensive linemen to determine their best fit. They'll make those judgments based on what they see of the players on videotape of their college games and how they perform at the combine as well as during on-campus drills in the coming weeks.

For the most part, the talent-evaluators are convinced there is enough variety to go around to supply both schemes.

"Although it's a good group, there will be some people that fit one place better than the other and that will thin it out a bit," Buffalo Bills vice president of college scouting Tom Modrak said. "It's not (like it was) back in the day, where a tackle is a tackle is a tackle. There are some differences to it, so that kind of separates the crowd."

Most of the separating is at end, where some of the more prominent names are Brian Orakpo of Texas, Everette Brown of Florida State, Larry English of Northern Illinois, Robert Ayers of Tennessee, and Aaron Maybin of Penn State.

"The good thing about it is I'm versatile … I fit well in both schemes," the 6-foot-3, 263-pound Orakpo said. "I'm very effective in both, so we'll see."

Orakpo has decent speed, but is hardly in the class of a Dwight Freeney. Brown, English, Ayers, and Maybin are exceptionally quick off the edge and could be ends or outside linebackers.

"That's one area that is very strong," Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said of the ends who could project as outside linebackers in the NFL.

The Steelers' 3-4 defense was the league's best last season and a major reason the team won a sixth Super Bowl last month.

The Green Bay Packers are joining the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals in converting from the 4-3 to the 3-4, so they have increased the demand for players who fit better in that defense.

The Packers hired a new defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, who has a far different philosophy than had previously been in place. However, Packers general manager Ted Thompson insists it doesn't dramatically change the way he and his scouts assess defensive linemen.

"I keep saying it over and over again -- and I may sound like a broken record -- but football players are football players at the end of the day," Thompson said. "There are no prototype absolutes in football. There are guys that don't fit the prototype. (Pittsburgh's) James Harrison is the NFL Defensive Player of the Year this year, he is not a typical 3-4 outside linebacker, but he's a great player because he's a football guy."

Another exceptionally strong area among the draft-eligible defensive linemen is tackle. The premier prospects in this class are B.J. Raji from Boston College, Peria Jerry from Mississippi, Fili Moala of USC, and Evander Hood from Missouri.

The 6-1½, 337-pound Raji missed the 2007 season because of academic ineligibility. But he did make a tremendous comeback last season, and that, along with a strong Senior Bowl performance, vaulted him to the top of the defensive tackles in the draft. He offers tremendous strength and shows the ability to consistently tie up multiple blockers.

Asked what kind of player the team that drafts him will get, Raji said, "I think they'll get an overall defensive tackle who can do both -- get to the quarterback, stop the run."

Like Thompson, New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum is drafting for a different defensive coach. In the Jets' case, it is new coach Rex Ryan, former defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.

Although the Jets previously ran a 3-4, their defensive philosophy will be different under Ryan, who prefers more versatility among all of his defenders but especially the front seven. He wants his linemen to know the responsibilities of the linebackers and vice versa because it makes it easier for them to be interchangeable.

"I think, if you look at Baltimore, that would be a pretty good model," Tannenbaum said. "We may tweak some things a little bit and obviously size (is a consideration) at a couple of (defensive line) positions and we're also looking for some explosiveness and short-area quickness and guys that can get off blocks and make plays. That said, Rex's history is really position flexibility up front, and you can see some of the guys he's moved around in his fronts.

"I think there is (flexibility in this defensive line group), maybe more with some guys than others. But I think some of these guys are versatile (enough) to line up at nose or to be extended out (at tackle)."

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