NFL teams, especially those that employ aggressive 3-4 sets, are trying to figure out which players will adapt best to standing up after spending years with their hand on the ground grappling at the line of scrimmage.
The Baltimore Ravens have been one of the most successful franchises at converting so-called hybrids, smaller, athletic college defensive ends, and turning them loose as versatile pass rushers at the pro level.
That practice started with the Ravens when former Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis utilized four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker and former Florida State star defensive end Peter Boulware, the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.
"Peter was a guy that played as a line technique, had his hand in the dirt and just rushed, I mean just up the field every day," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said during a draft luncheon earlier this month. "From Marvin to our coaches, they’d go down and work a guy out and say, ‘OK, we can utilize his strengths and minimize his weakness.’ Therefore, you allow a guy like Peter to play on his feet that can still be a double-digit sack guy and play outside linebacker.
"Our coaches take the information they have and say, ‘This guy can fit our scheme in this way.’ There are other times that we fit our scheme to what the players can do. There’s where I think our coaching goes to the next level."
And the Ravens have continued that tradition launched with Boulware over the years with former college defensive ends Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas developed into Pro Bowl outside linebackers. The Ravens also converted former Alabama defensive end/tackle Jarret Johnson into a viable starting outside linebacker.
For every Suggs, Shawne Merriman or a DeMarcus Ware, though, there are also many projection failures over the years throughout the league. That’s why NFL teams have to be extremely selective when making these decisions.
A dozen years after the Ravens drafted Boulware, there are more 3-4 defenses than ever being installed in the NFL. Every AFC North team except the Cincinnati Bengals runs it as their primary defense.
That has increased the demand for 3-4 candidates, which raises the stock for versatile, mobile defensive players such as Texas’ Brian Orakpo, Florida State’s Everette Brown, Tennessee’s Robert Ayers, USC’s Clay Matthews, Penn State’s Aaron Maybin, Northern Illinois’ Larry English, Georgia Tech’s Michael Johnson, Virginia’s Clint Sintim, Cincinnati’s Connor Barwin and Richmond’s Lawrence Sidbury.
There seems to be an ample supply this year to go along with the demand.
"Yes, this is the best year I’ve ever seen for the amount of college 4-3 defensive ends that will be asked to play outside linebacker," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said during a conference call.
When the Ravens are on the clock with the 26th overall pick of the first round, their best-player-available philosophy could coincide with the potential availability of several top pass rushers. The Ravens could use another pass rusher to work in tandem with Suggs and defensive end Trevor Pryce.
That means a sliding Matthews, Ayers or Brown as well as English, who’s slotted to go toward the end of the first round, could be under consideration for the Ravens.
The same principle could also apply for the second round, third round or fourth round for players like Sintim, Barwin, Sidbury, Connecticut’s Cody Brown, Utah’s Paul Kruger and Western Illinois’ Jason Williams.
Overall, the Ravens are fairly high on this class of 3-4 candidates.
"I think Ayers is a really good player," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "I think he’s going to be a first-round draft pick. I think Everette Brown is another guy who’s very quick up the field with pass rush ability. He’s a good athlete who can drop in space. Larry English is another guy I think teams are looking at as a possible hybrid as an outside linebacker who can rush the passer and can also drop to play in space."
Brown recorded 46 1/2 career tackles for losses and 23 sacks, racking up 21 1/2 tackles for losses and 13 1/2 sacks last season. However, he has been battling unfavorable comparisons to former FSU player Jamal Reynolds. Reynolds was a total bust with the Green Bay Packers.
The Ravens have had Ayers, Maybin and Sidbury in for official visits.
Ayers is an athletic 6-3, 272-pounder who runs a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash, but is essentially a one-year wonder as an All-Southeastern Conference selection who recorded 15 1/2 tackles for losses as a senior. Arrested a few years ago for aggravated assault, he wound up pleading guilty to a lesser offense and hasn’t been in trouble ever since.
Ayers has been projected as high as the Buffalo Bills’ 11th overall pick and as low as the Tennessee Titans at No. 30 overall.
"I am way above what most people think of him," Mayock said. "I’ve been on the Robert Ayers bandwagon when I was the only one. I’ve got him as the third-best player in the country. I think if he gets with a creative defensive coordinator that’s willing to move him around like a Justin Tuck, then three years from now he’ll be the best defensive player coming out of this draft. I don’t think Buffalo will pull the trigger on him. I think it’s more likely he goes 15 to 25."
The son of former Cleveland Browns linebacker Clay Matthews, Matthews has been rated very highly. Yet, the late-blooming former walk-on’s draft status could be affected by unconfirmed published reports that he tested positive for steroids at the NFL scouting combine. His agents have denied the report and demanded a retraction.
"Clay Matthews is the most athletic of the three USC linebackers, he moves like he’s a 245-pound safety," Mayock said. "On third down, I know he’ll be in the game either as a nickel linebacker or as a three-down linebacker."
English was ultra-productive with 57 career tackles for losses and 32 1/2 sacks. The 6-2, 255-pounder is a two-time conference Player of the Year.
"I like English better than Maybin, I think he’s a natural pass rusher," Mayock said. "He isn’t quite as explosive as Maybin with his first step or two, but I think he’s the better run defender and I think he’s smart."
Sintim registered 39 career tackles for losses and 27 sacks, including a career-high 11 sacks as a senior. He has a good size-speed ratio at 6-2, 266 pounds with a 4.75 time in the 40-yard dash.
Cody Brown is an outstanding athlete who recorded 11 sacks last season and has turned in terrific workouts."I think Clint Sintim and Cody Brown are more second-round guys," Mayock said. Sidbury is regarded as a workout warrior who has an outstanding spin move, and generated four sacks in the Division I-AA championship game.
Barwin is another intriguing prospect because of his versatility and intensity.
A tight end for three seasons, Barwin caught 53 career passes and six touchdowns while also playing on the Bearcats’ basketball team. Barwin moved to defensive end last season as a senior and led the Big East Conference with 11 sacks while recording 16 tackles for losses.
At nearly 6-4 and 265 pounds, he’s also very fast with a 4.66 clocking in the 40-yard dash. Barwin could probably save a team a roster spot because of his ability to play several positions.
"I think Connor Barwin is a football player, he’s got a good motor and he plays hard," DeCosta said. "He catches the ball well and can stretch the field as a tight end. On the other side of the ball, he’s a good pass rusher.
"He really improved this year. He made huge strides as a player. He’s been a very good special-teams guy. He’s highly intelligent, he’s fast, and he’s a good athlete. I think he has good versatility to play both spots."