Since very few collegiate football teams use the 3-4 defensive scheme, scouts have to project which players can make the transition to its most important position: outside linebacker. This evaluation is one of the job's most difficult tasks, especially when looking at 4-3 defensive ends, simply because you never know how a player will react when you take him out of his comfort zone.
What makes a player a candidate for the switch, or conversion, you ask?
Well, there are a few simple traits that they must have. First, you must figure out if they can adapt to rushing from a two-point stance. I know it sounds rudimentary, but there are players that just don't have the same burst when coming from a stand-up position. In addition, guys who usually play from a three-point stance have a tendency to take a false step when making the transition, and that extra step can eliminate any speed advantage that they might have over an offensive tackle.
Second, they have to be able to drop into coverage. Whether the version of the 3-4 centers on the zone-blitz or not, the outside backer will have to be able to cover a zone in pass defense some of the time. This is the area that most 4-3 defensive ends struggle with. A prospect must be more flexible and agile than the typical defensive end. In other words, he needs to be able to backpedal and have the lateral movement skills required to move quickly in open space.
Lastly, there is the mental side of the change. When a player is used to pinning his ears back to get after the quarterback in passing situations or penetrate the line of scrimmage on running plays for six to ten years, changing that mindset is easier said than done. You're trying to take someone who's used to aggressive and attacking movements and alter their game to be more passive and cerebral while reading the offense. I've always told people it's like taking the most outgoing person you know and telling them that they have sit in a corner at a party without talking to a single person.
These are just some of the basic aspects of a player's game that must be evaluated when considering a prospect for the 3-4 outside linebacker position. So, the next time your team drafts a bust looking for the next Clay Matthews, maybe you won't be so hard on the GM who made the pick.
Here are the rankings for the 3-4 outside linebackers:
1. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
2. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
3. Andre Branch, Clemson
4. Shea McClellin, Boise St.
5. Cam Johnson, Virginia
6. Nick Perry, USC
7. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia
8. Vinny Curry, Marshall
9. Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest
10. Olivier Vernon, Miami-Fl.
Olivier Vernon might be the best prospect on this list. His lateral agility, burst and power are exceptional for his size. Everything he does on the football field looks completely natural and effortless. However, the negatives are certainly apparent. He is completely raw and looks to try and get by on his natural ability. He has done very little at Miami to hone his skills. In addition, he was suspended for the first six games of the 2011 season for accepting gifts from a booster.
For the most part, I wouldn't hold that against a prospect. But when that booster turns out to be Nevin Shapiro, the most well known illegal booster in the country and a man who is restricted from ever coming onto the Miami campus, I have a hard time giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Tim Fugger of Vanderbilt is another player that falls into this category. He wasn't invited to the combine or either of the all star games, but his production as a 4-3 defensive end was pretty impressive for someone playing on a bad team in the ultra-talented SEC. In his senior season, he tallied 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
At his pro day, he ran 4.55 in the 40, 6.97 in the 3-cone and 4.10 in the 20-yard shuttle. All of them would have ranked in the top ten at the Combine. More importantly, he looked very natural in all of the conversion drills. At 6'3" and 248 pounds, I expect him to go in the 4th or 5th round.