INDIANAPOLIS -- In the big business of college football recruiting, those special high school talents who have no defined position -- because they do so many things well -- are tabbed as "athletes." In the big business of NFL prospect evaluation, those types of players seemingly are cast as hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers.
Wake Forest's Aaron Curry, Texas' Brian Orakpo, Penn State's Aaron Maybin and Florida State's Everette Brown are more or less separated by an inch in height and 5 to 10 pounds in weight, and all fit that newer breed of edge player. They are cat-quick with built-in tracking devices to the quarterback. All four are projected to be selected in the first round of April's NFL Draft.
Yet they all are players without a defined position. Maybe that's because the positions they play best no longer have a definition.
They can line up as ends in a three-point stance and provide run support. They can stand up, back off the line of scrimmage and drop into pass coverage. More than anything, they can wreak havoc from either spot, which makes disguising pass coverages, blitzes and other pressures easier for defensive coordinators.
Though a player of Lawrence Taylor's ilk might never again be found, the diversity he brought to the edge-rushing position is being infused into defensive schemes with newfound energy. More and more, the emphasis is moving away from the play of middle/inside linebackers and toward players who can disrupt action in the offense's backfield from the outside.
"We feel like this is probably one of the deepest areas of the draft," Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "We're probably going to lean more to a 3-4 type of alignment that puts a great emphasis on linebackers. Our focus is probably going to be with the outside area, where that hybrid-type linebacker, from that position, is going to be a focus. This draft has some guys in it that would be very appealing to us."
The Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs, like the Green Bay Packers, are moving to a 3-4 defensive front, although Arizona played a mash-up version of both sets last season. The Steelers, Cowboys, Ravens, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers are among the teams that already run the linebacker-friendly 3-4 set, in large part to capitalize on the versatility of edge-type pass rushers.
The trending to that defensive front has added even more importance on finding players who can play off the edge but do so from the line of scrimmage and off the ball -- like nearly every effective outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
"I'm versatile. I'm not just a guy that's projected," Orakpo said. "I played (outside linebacker and defensive end), and I've been very effective at both. A lot of teams are going to that 3-4 scheme, but you still have a lot of teams in the 4-3. They need versatile guys who can play either position."
The biggest difference between playing outside linebacker and defensive end is that at end, players have to engage tight ends and tackles at the line of scrimmage on nearly every play, with little responsibility in the passing game besides putting pressure on the quarterback. Outside linebackers could have coverage or rush duties against the pass. The run duties typically are similar, except the outside linebacker could be a yard or so off the line of scrimmage, allowing for a running start before engaging a lead blocker.
Of the hybrid edge players, Curry likely is the only projected first-rounder who fits best as a linebacker -- especially since he can play both inside and out. He has the ability to set himself on the line of scrimmage and be used like Miami's Joey Porter in pass-rushing situations, if need be.
Orakpo, Maybin and Brown are viewed as multi-dimensional edge players who might not have the needed size to be every down run-stuffers at end, but they do possess the toughness and strength to set and hold an edge on run downs. Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English is a projected borderline first-rounder who also fits that mold.
All of these prospects weigh in the 250- to 260-pound range, which isn't the ideal weight for a defensive end or an outside linebacker but is a perfect mold for the combination of the two positions.
Curry, a highly disruptive and productive player, is viewed as one of the top overall players in the draft. Orakpo isn't far behind. Since Brown, Maybin and English are being looked at for dual roles after playing mainly end in college, how they perform in agility and pass-covering drills at the NFL Scouting Combine could determine where in the first round they are selected.
"From what I've seen, I'm very encouraged by this group," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Finding that outside-type linebacker, especially in the type of defense that we play, is hard to find. There appear to be a number of guys in this draft that fit this bill. The one thing I like, from what I've seen, is they have the capability not only to rush but to drop. You can't just rush every time. I'm encouraged by that."
Maybin boasts the most question marks, since he left Penn State after his redshirt sophomore season. His limited body of work already has posed a red flag, but his effectiveness in that short amount of time has scouts talking about his limitless ceiling. Maybin has added more than 20 pounds since the end of the season, weighing in at 250 pounds this week, and he probably will face scrutiny as to whether he'll be able to retain that weight or if he could gain more and settle as a traditional 4-3 end.
"I understand it, and I'll do what I can to give them what it is they want," Maybin said about concerns about his short but effective collegiate career. "At this weight, it's a functional weight for me. All of the scouts and GMs out there can basically see how I move, see what my athletic abilities are. I'll pretty much stay at this weight until the draft. Whatever team decides to draft me based on the system that I'm in, I can move up or down based on what it is that they want."
Trying to find the next great pass rusher has been the goal ever since Taylor revolutionized the role in the early 1980s. However teams haven't been as willing to flex players from end to outside linebacker along the way, in part because so many players haven't been able to adjust.
What's helping now is that college teams are keeping better athletes on defense to reduce the effectiveness of spread offenses. Hence, NFL teams have more hybrid edge players from whom to choose.
More NFL defenses also are adjusting to the three- and four-receiver sets they see on first down by using athletic linebackers to blitz and get the quarterback to release the ball early, or by dropping them into coverage on slot receivers or tight ends. By finding hybrid athletes who can match up with receivers, a defense's need to use nickel and dime sets isn't as great, and it's easier to mask schemes with base packages instead of tipping the plan by using a third cornerback or third safety.
"There are going to be more of a focus on those types of players," Graves said of the hybrid edge players. "There will be more competition for those types of guys. I assume that their value is going to rise accordingly."