Well, besides being among the league leaders in sacks last season, each was a collegiate defensive end who transitioned into an NFL hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. And because of the trio's success last season, NFL scouts are obsessively trying to identify the best hybrid players in the 2009 draft class.
Hybrids, who are best described as players who possess the pass-rush skills of a defensive end and the cover ability of an outside linebacker, have grown in popularity in recent years because more teams are using a 3-4 base defense. The Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens have been 3-4 disciples for years, and their implementation of the scheme allowed them to convert undersized college defensive ends into outside linebackers with tremendous success. Pro Bowlers Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Terrell Suggs are a few of the players who benefitted from playing as a hybrid-type defender in the NFL.
With 11 teams using some form of a 3-4 base defense, the need for hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers has resulted in more players being placed in this special category.
Draft series: Hybrid DE/OLBs
This year's draft class features as many as 10 hybrid-type players projected to come off the board in the first three rounds. Led by Brian Orakpo, Everette Brown, Aaron Maybin and Larry English, at least four hybrids likely will be taken in the first round, and that doesn't include the draft's fastest riser, Clay Matthews, who is viewed as a first-round talent by several teams.
Orakpo, who led the University of Texas with 11.5 sacks in 2008, is a phenomenal pass rusher, but he lacks the size to fight 300-pound offensive tackles on an every-down basis. Thus, NFL teams have been evaluating his ability to drop into coverage and change directions as a possible outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Brown, Maybin and English also faced similar scrutiny at their pro days. Each spent the majority of his college career with his hand in the ground, but teams want to see if those three players are athletic enough to play from a two-point stance. If they are able to show the ability to function in coverage, they can be better incorporated into exotic zone-blitz schemes.
Although most of the pre-draft speculation has been on the aforementioned quartet, this draft class is stocked with other hybrids who could impact the league early in their careers. Though Michael Johnson, Connor Barwin and Lawrence Sidbury carry second-round grades, each has the potential to outplay his draft status because of his athleticism and big-play potential.
Johnson, who is one of the best athletes available at the position, is a rangy player who flashes dominant ability as a rusher off the edge. His first-step quickness is exceptional, and he can run down quarterbacks from the backside. Though his effort is inconsistent, Johnson's athleticism is undeniable, and he has the potential to terrorize opponents off the edge.
Barwin, who played tight end for three seasons at Cincinnati before switching to defensive end during his senior year, led the Big East Conference with 12 sacks and displayed impressive pass-rush skills, considering his experience. With an extensive basketball background (he played for the Bearcats' hoops squad for two seasons as a walk-on), Barwin has the athleticism to excel in coverage as a zone-dropper. That combination of athleticism and pass-rush skill makes Barwin an ideal hybrid player in zone-blitz schemes and a potential star in the right situation.
While most of the highly rated hybrid prospects played on big college stages, Sidbury toiled in relative anonymity at the University of Richmond. But after leading the Spiders to a national title in the NCAA Football Championship Series (formerly Division I-AA), Sidbury has shot up draft boards and drawn the interest of numerous teams looking to add an impact playmaker.
Sudbury, a former track athlete, has explosive initial quickness and flashes a tremendous closing burst. Though he has a tendency to run around blocks at times, his ability to get to the quarterback is impressive and makes him a highly regarded prospect as an edge rusher.
The renaissance of the 3-4 defense has changed the landscape of the draft because hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers have become highly desirable prospects. With scores of versatile athletes manning the defensive end position in college, it appears the 2009 draft class will offer more than enough hybrid candidates.