Evaluating the new breed of DE/OLB hybrids

In today's NFL, 30 is the new 40.

We're not talking about age here, but rather the shift of several franchises in their base defense. Whereas the 4-3, or "40" defense, has been the preferred flavor of the NFL since Tom Landry introduced it as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator in the '60s, the last several seasons have seen a swing toward the 3-4, or "30" defense.

Draft series: Hybrid DE/OLBs

NFL.com's 10-part series looks at each position in the draft.

It's easy to see why -- six of the Super Bowl champs this decade, including the defending champion Steelers, are disciples of the 3-4 defense.

Twelve teams (or 38 percent), including four teams in the top 10 of the 2009 NFL Draft, will employ the 3-4 look this year.

That means former 4-3 collegiate defensive ends will be 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL. Dallas' DeMarcus Ware and San Diego's Shawne Merriman are sterling examples of players who've made the move.

What goes into that process? The analysts at "Path to the Draft" -- Charles Davis and Mike Mayock -- break down what personnel evaluators around the league look for when these players go from the three-point stance to the 3-4.

On what teams are looking for on game tape:

Mike Mayock: I'm looking for a premier pass rusher with a great get-off and the ability to get around the tackle. They need explosion off the edge -- to be able to run the arc.

Charles Davis: The first thing I'm looking for is athleticism. I need to see that quickness and suddenness. Second is the body type. I'm not inclined to take a big guy or a thick guy and move him from end.

On what teams are looking for at workouts, including the combine and pro days:

MM: I don't care about 40 times. You look a little at their 10 split (first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash) and their vertical jump. Those show explosion. You want to see their pass-drop ability. That's something they have to get used to (if they hope to make the transition).

CD: I know each team has some baseline numbers, but I don't have those. At the combine, I want to see smoothness. Like (former Supreme Court Justice) Potter Stewart said, "I just know it when I see it." It's a feel. You want to see how a guy turns, his change of direction. You want it to look effortless.

On this year's crop of talent:

MM: This year is unique. There are six or seven premium guys that I can see converting. More and more teams are going to the 3-4 look like the Steelers and Patriots. For years, the Pats and Steelers were the only 3-4 teams and they had all these guys to themselves.

CD: I see five good ones out there, maybe a few more. It all depends on who drafts them. It's a deeper group than usual. And with this crop, I don't see a rush of trying to label them as defensive ends or linebackers. I think teams are just excited to utilize them and use them in different ways. Teams really like the versatility of this group.

On the most important characteristics to be successful:

MM: I talked to Willie McGinest recently, and he said the most difficult thing is learning the complexity of pass defense. That's not something these guys had to do in college. But first, you want an elite pass rusher. They also need to be stout enough against the run at the edge because they occasionally have to take on a tight end or a tackle. Different 3-4 teams like different types of outside linebackers. Teams like New England and Cleveland like guys that are 6-foot-3 and long. Pittsburgh and Baltimore don't care nearly as much about length.

CD: Intelligence is overlooked -- an understanding of schemes and different coverages. These guys have to maintain elite pass-rush ability and be able to drop into coverage and fill passing lanes. These guys can't just target and go.

On high boom-and-bust rate:

MM: Any time you're projecting, there's a larger "miss" rate. It's a lot easier to look at a collegiate 4-3 linebacker and project him to that position in the pros. It takes time to fully grasp what's going on. Look at Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. He bounced back and forth between Pittsburgh and Baltimore for several years. It takes time to develop these guys. It's just a question of how long.

CD: You're taking a guy out of his natural habitat. You have to be cautious. You have to ask, "Do I really need to convert a guy?" Maybe he's good at it, maybe he isn't. The worst thing you can do is have a great athlete thinking too much. We used to call them astronauts because they'd be lost in space.

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