How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Defensive End Prospects?

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterJune 3, 2013

The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"

It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.

Here, I'll go deeper.

Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?

With the offensive positions complete (quarterbacksrunning backswide receiverstight ends and offensive linemen), here is a look at what it takes to scout defensive ends for the NFL.

When scouting defensive ends, the evaluator must first identify in which scheme the player will be placed—a 3-4 or 4-3, most commonly—and then begin to break down the speed, strength, vision and technique of the player. 

What's most important?

1. Defensive Line Alignments—Which Are You Scouting?

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Over the last decade, the NFL has seen the emergence of the 3-4 defense. There's a good chance most of the people reading this can't even remember a time when only the Pittsburgh Steelers ran the 3-4 on a regular basis.

Times have changed, and with that change we now see roughly half of the NFL running a base 3-4 defense. That makes scouting for each team tougher on the everyday scout who must have working knowledge of all 32 franchises. 

There are differences between the 3-4 and 4-3 defense—but first, a basic introduction to defensive alignments and techniques. 

If you have read many of my articles, you'll come across things like "3-technique" when talking about defensive tackles, or a reference to a "5-tech" defensive end in the 3-4 defense. Each "technique" along the defensive line is shown above. With the center always a "0" technique, the numbers work from the inside out past the tight end.

To effectively scout a defensive lineman, you must first know where he's lining up and be able to accurately record that.

In today's brand of football, it's common for a defender to play in multiple alignments within one game. Take Jason Pierre-Paul, for example, as someone who lines up in a 7-, 6- and 3-technique depending on the situation. J.J. Watt plays in a 6-, 5-, 4- and 3-technique for the Houston Texans. 

Knowing defensive line alignments may seem antiquated, but it's useful foundation knowledge for the football lover.

2. 3-4 vs. 4-3 Scouting Principles

Once you know where your prospect is lining up, it's time to look at what type of player he's projected to be. When looking at defensive ends, the first question is whether the player projects as a 3-4, 4-3 or dual-threat defensive end. 

What are the differences?

It's not as easy to say that 3-4 defensive ends are bigger—even though they are—because a great 3-4 defensive-end prospect isn't just bigger than his 4-3 counterpart, but he's able to hold off blockers, use his strength to keep running backs from getting outside the tackle box and is versatile enough to stop the run and rush the quarterback. 

There are fundamental must-haves for the two defensive schemes—you wouldn't put a 250-pound pass-rusher in a 5-technique in the 3-4 defense—and these fundamentals come down to size, strength and experience. 

While there will always be a Watt-type defensive end who comes along once in a blue moon, most likely you will find yourself charting a player as strictly a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive end, not both.

What do we look for in each?

3. Traits and Characteristics

Playing football at a high level all comes down to how well you perform the requirements of the position and how much aptitude you have to get better at those requirements. For defensive ends, we're looking for quick, strong athletes who can make a split-second decision on whether to attack the quarterback or running back. 

Here is my scouting checklist for 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends.

A. Agility and Athleticism

First and foremost, how athletic is the prospect? That doesn't mean that we'll draft the most athletic defensive end every year, but you do want to know what type of athletic base the player brings. Measuring that athleticism requires a two-fold approach—film and workouts.

The NFL Scouting Combine helps tremendously with publicly available workout numbers. These numbers, when used in conjunction with film study, paint a complete picture of how athletic a healthy prospect is.

In Pat Kirwan's book "Take Your Eye Off the Ball," he highlights a scouting metric called the "Explosive Number," something NFL scouts use to put a numeric value on how athletic a player is. The idea is to add a player's bench-press reps, his broad jump and his vertical jump to get a solid number for cross-comparisons at a given position.

Due to injuries, the 2013 combine saw fewer players perform the necessary tests to get a complete Explosive Number, but here is a look at those who did test in the broad jump, vertical jump and 225-pound bench press.

Athletic freaks Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo didn't perform the bench press—Jordan due to injury; Mingo declined to work out—which robs us of a comparative look at the two projected highest scorers in the 2013 class.

But a look back to 2012 showed that USC's Nick Perry was the best of the group with a score of 83.9. Perry was a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, but he struggled in his first season as an outside linebacker. That brings up the next item: What type of football player is the prospect?

B. Technique

Athletic ability will wow general managers, but football ability wins championships. That's why looking at two years (at least) of film on a player is key to understanding the prospect's current ability and his upside at the position.

The biggest part of a draft grade I give a player is based purely on film study—roughly 90 percent of the grade—and when scouting defensive ends, I'm looking for the technique to shed blocks at the next level and the quickness to close on the ball.

When queuing up a player on film, what should you be looking for?

1. Agility—Quick feet are important for every position on the football field, but for a defensive end, we need to see burst to get off the ball before the offensive line, the hips to turn the corner and the speed to then close on the ball-carrier.

2. Flexibility—Especially important for 4-3 defensive ends is the ability to dip their inside shoulder to beat an offensive tackle to the backfield. On film, look for ends lined up in a 6-or-greater technique to see if they can dip their inside shoulder to get below the hands of an offensive tackle. If they can, watch to see if they have the athletic ability to dip and accelerate around the corner to get to the quarterback.

3. Hand Use—There will come a time when the defender isn't fast enough to simply beat blockers off the edge, and that's where hand use comes in to play. A good defensive end must be able to swat away the punch of an offensive lineman and use his hands to free himself from blockers in the run game.

4. Leverage—Battles up front are won and lost with leverage. A defensive end must be able to hold his ground in the run and pass game and not give up yardage by being driven off the ball. You want to see a player be able to hold strength in his lower body and drive up the hands and upper body of a blocker.

5. Strength—Strength, like leverage, is key for strong-side pass-rushers and every end in the run game. You must be strong enough to beat blockers and bring down ball-carriers. 

C. Read and React

There have been athletic freaks and technical geniuses at the defensive-end position who never succeeded in the NFL. Reason being? They couldn't read the offense to find the football.

These players sometimes become third-down pass-rushers, but they'll never see the field consistently because they are a liability between the ears.

The ability to read and react to what the offense does is the most underrated aspect to playing defensive end. That might mean effectively reading the option and closing down on the quarterback. It may mean reading a screen pass and getting depth in coverage.

A complete defensive end must be quick, strong and smart. 

You can see this on college film, too. What does the player do against screen packages? How does the defender react to play-action passing or draw running plays? You want an aggressive defender, not someone paralyzed by analysis, but you also want a smart player who can adjust on the fly both physically and mentally.

Find that and you have a great defensive-end prospect.

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