Few analysts see former Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack as a better prospect than former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but if the Houston Texans take Mack instead of Clowney with the No. 1 pick Thursday night, it might be because they view Mack as a better fit for their 3-4 defense.
Mack (6-foot-3, 251 pounds) was a 3-4 outside linebacker in college; Clowney (6-5, 266) was a 4-3 defensive end. Houston's new defensive coordinator is Romeo Crennel, who runs a 3-4.
NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport tweeted Monday that if the Texans draft Clowney with the top pick, he'll play the role Willie McGinest did in New England's 3-4 defense when Crennel was the coordinator -- an outside linebacker who is asked to set the edge against the run and rush the passer. Mack would serve in the Tedy Bruschi role -- as a linebacker who can play inside and outside, and also rush the passer.
Crennel hired Mike Vrabel this offseason to coach the linebackers with the Texans. Vrabel, who had been coaching linebackers at Ohio State, played for Crennel and alongside McGinest and Bruschi with the Patriots. His knowledge of the 3-4 defense -- and what the linebackers are supposed to do -- is well-known.
Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who also played with Bruschi and McGinest, recently told stateofthetexans.com -- a Texans fans blog -- that the Texans' base would be a 3-4 front that played Cover 2 defense. Johnson said the Texans' run defense would need to be much better in 2014 than it was in 2013.
"(Crennel) will want to have a top-10 run defense because if you are going to play Cover 2, you better be able to do it with seven guys in the box," Johnson said.
Johnson also said Crennel liked versatile linebackers, pointing out that Bruschi would play middle linebacker at times for the Pats. Mack has played inside linebacker in the 3-4 and it's something he is used to doing. Clowney playing inside linebacker? He's not used to that. In addition, he rarely dropped into coverage at South Carolina. While Clowney's main emphasis in the 3-4 obviously would be to rush the passer, he still occasionally would be asked to drop into coverage.
Crennel already has J.J. Watt at defensive end and won't do anything to hinder the All-Pro. Watt could also line up as a rush 'backer in the 3-4. The other projected starting end is Tim Jamison. Houston's projected starting outside linebackers right now are Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed. Mercilus, a first-rounder in 2012, struggled last season.
When he was hired, Crennel said he had no problem with running multiple fronts. In those instances, putting Clowney and Watt at end in a 4-3 would be an intriguing pairing. Presumably, though, Mack and Watt would be almost as intriguing.