INDIANAPOLIS -- The confluence of a subtle change in the NFL, along with the strength of the top-end talent in the upcoming draft, should make for a lot of people on the defensive side of the ball feel happy/lucky about their timing.
The scales have tilted back to teams playing a 4-3 defensive front, with Cleveland and Denver converting from a 3-4 next season. Their timing couldn't be better because they'll have to re-configure their defensive line, which is the strength of this draft. Better yet, the top players are better suited for four-man fronts, several NFL personnel evaluators at the combine said this week.
"The outside guys are shaping up as defensive ends. It's really deep," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "We're a 4-3 team, but we think there's some real quality depth and pass rushers at defensive end -- not just hybrid guys."
The defensive linemen work out Monday here at the combine, and they could actually dominate the event. Although quarterback Cam Newton has been the most talked about, the defensive linemen will be the main attraction.
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This is a draft deep and talented at defensive end. Not hybrid ends who can switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but more traditional, hand-in-the-ground pass-rushing 4-3 ends. Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers and North Carolina's Robert Quinn are considered the top two ends in the draft, but they have plenty of company.
The defensive tackle prospects are also strong, with Alabama's Marcell Dareus and Auburn's Nick Fairley neck-and-neck as the front-runners.
Several GMs here described the group as nasty, competitive and mature defenders who can get after the quarterback. Teams can never have enough pass rushers, and this year there are plenty -- and plenty of teams that need them. Some personnel evaluators have said there could be at least 10 defensive linemen selected in the first round -- or one of every three players taken on the first day.
What's also different about these prospects compared to the past few years is the talent is clearly divided between 4-3 or 3-4 players. According to scouts and general managers, the size and strengths of the players fit one of the particular schemes, and there aren't nearly as many players they would consider versatile enough to succeed while transitioning from one scheme to the other.
Up to 18 teams could be using the 4-3 as their base defense next season.
In 4-3 fronts, the linemen tend to be smaller and are asked to be playmakers, especially the ends, who weigh around 270 pounds but can run and are quick enough to penetrate through gaps. In the 3-4, the linemen are bigger -- nose tackles exceed 315 pounds and ends typically weigh closer to 290 -- and occupy blockers so the linebackers can make plays, especially the outside linebackers, who weigh more in the 250-255 range.
The 3-4 has been the rage of the NFL the past few years because so many teams have had success in the system. Of the four teams that made it to the conference championship games this past season, only one -- Chicago -- played a 4-3. The Jets and Super Bowl combatants Pittsburgh and Green Bay use the 3-4.
It's not for everybody, though. New Broncos coach John Fox said his decision to play the 4-3 in Denver is a personal preference and one he used during his time coaching the Carolina Panthers. Cleveland's new defensive coordinator, Dick Jauron, prefers the four-man front, although it could require some significant re-tooling of the Browns' personnel.
"Going to the four-man line, there are some people we need (to add in the draft)," Broncos president John Elway said. "Going from a 3-4 to 4-3, the numbers are there. Obviously it's something we have to look at. We're still in that process. ... There's been an emphasis on the defensive side because we've got to get a lot better."
Denver has the second overall pick, Cleveland the sixth. Carolina, with the No. 1 pick, is sticking with the 4-3 under new coach Ron Rivera, and the Bengals, who run a 4-3, have the fourth overall pick. Tennessee, Minnesota, Detroit and St. Louis are other teams with top 14 picks that play four-man schemes. In need of a defensive line upgrade, each will likely augment their lines through the draft at some point.
And this is the draft to do it in.
"There might not be that great player like last season's group," one general manager said, referring to Ndamukong Suh, "but this overall is a very strong group."
The past few drafts, there's been a push to find hybrid edge pass rushers who can play a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker. Players like Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, Larry English, and Robert Ayers were collegiate ends who switched to outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes. Only Orakpo has made a smooth transition. This draft, there's not nearly as much talk about players possibly being able to do both.
There are more prototypical 4-3 ends, like Quinn (6-4, 265), Bowers (6-3, 280) -- Bowers also could slide to tackle if needed -- and Purdue's Paul Kerrigan (6-4, 267), and more teams that need them. Besides the teams at the front of the draft, Tampa Bay (pick No. 20), New Orleans (24), Seattle (25), and Atlanta (27) need pass-rushing ends who can also hold the edge against the run.
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Purdue's Kerrigan and Missouri's Aldon Smith are among other 4-3 ends who could be picked in the first round, but there's enough depth for quality rotational players to be found later. That depth is what makes this draft so heavily tilted toward defensive linemen early in the draft.
Denver could target Dareus or Fairley to help establish the inside anchor, much like Detroit did last season when it selected Suh, who went on to win defensive rookie honors, with the second overall pick. Devaney said the talent at tackle isn't quite as deep as it is at end, but there is some quality at the front of the draft. The Browns, who already cleared some room by cutting Shaun Rogers, could target the tackle Denver doesn't take.
And though much of the talent seems suited for four-man fronts, there are several 3-4 defensive linemen who will be pursued, but none projected to have the immediate impact of the 4-3 defenders. And while Denver and Cleveland are switching from a 3-4, Houston is changing from a 4-3 to the 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
At some point in the draft, the Texans will have to add linemen to fit the need for the bulkier, space-eating players up front, and there is talent in that regard too in the draft.
Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Cal's Cameron Jordan and Ohio State's Cam Heyward are better suited to play end in the 3-4 scheme. Dareus is projected as an end in this front, but some personnel evaluators here think he could be more influential at either tackle position in a 4-3.