- Figuring out the specific kinds of players five new defensive bosses will be looking for on draft weekend. Plus, the overblown difference between 4-3 and 3-4, Dez Bryant’s value and one NFC contender who could use him, and a reason to reach for offensive tackles in the first round
When making mock drafts, we tend to look at a team’s depth chart, identify its least attractive position and peg that as the team need. Smart front offices take it a step further, though. They look at their coaching staff’s scheme to identify the need within the need. A team needs a linebacker. O.K., but what type of linebacker? Every team says it takes the best player available and that their coaches will fit the scheme to their personnel. That’s not how it actually goes—even if the team truly believes it.
Most coaches coach what they know. The scheme they were brought up in is what they build their career on, because by the time you climb the ladder high enough to be the one choosing the scheme, you have too many responsibilities to spend time learning new schemes. In April, a defensive coordinator is meeting with draft prospects. In March, he was evaluating prospects. In February, he was evaluating free agents. In January, he was either coaching in the playoffs or doing his team’s annual self-scouting project. After the draft, that defensive coordinator will prepare for minicamps and OTAs. In June and July, there are minicamp or training camp obligations, with maybe four or five free weeks in between. But by then the defensive coordinator is nearly burnt out and must save energy for the upcoming season, which will be twice as busy as the offseason. So he spends those four or five weeks relaxing with his family. He simply can’t find the time or energy to learn the details of a new scheme.
Coaches coach what they know, and that impacts how their teams draft. Here are examples from five teams who have new defensive czars in 2018.
Jon Gruden tapped former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to run his Raiders defense. Guenther, a former linebackers coach, worked with big thumping inside linebackers in Cincinnati—Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga. Guenther’s scheme derives from his predecessor and former boss, Mike Zimmer. It’s mainly a 4-3 “over” scheme, meaning the 3-technique plays on the strong side and both safeties often align deep. This can leave the box a tad lighter than the more common 4-3 “under” schemes that you see (think Seattle or Jacksonville), where the strong safety aligns near the linebackers. That may explain why having at least one bigger linebacker is important.
Also, the scheme employs a lot of double-A-gap fronts in passing situations, with both linebackers aligned directly over the center’s shoulders. A backer with the stoutness to spar with guards could present more options for the zone blitzes that come off this look.
Zimmer’s first draft pick as the head coach in Minnesota was 255-pound UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. If Guenther gets a say on Oakland’s first pick—and he should, since that pick is almost certain to be on defense—don’t be surprised if it’s Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch (both weigh around 250), even if Georgia’s Roquan Smith is still on the board.
New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus coached in Rob Ryan’s blitz-intensive hybrid 3-4 with the Browns and Cowboys from 2009-12, but he subscribes to the Rod Marinelli traditional 4-3 zone-based scheme that he ran with the Cowboys from 2013-17. Or, he does to a certain degree. Eberflus took over much of Dallas’s pass defense scheming in 2016 and 2017 and implemented a few more matchup coverage concepts. Overall, though, we’re still talking about a traditional 4-3 defense, with selective blitzing and an emphasis on gap penetration along the D-line.
Marinelli is an advocate for gap-exchanging, with defensive lineman stunting and slanting into different gaps after the snap. So is Eberflus. He believes this is how you compensate for D-line talent deficiencies. Which means he’ll be doing it a lot over his first few years in Indy, where literally the entire front seven could use an upgrade.
Stunting and slanting allows a defensive lineman to defend multiple gaps without having to plant his feet in the ground and “two-gap.” It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach. The reward is quick penetration and dismantled blocking schemes. The risk is having your front four’s gap integrity break down, which is much more likely when D-lineman are moving east-and-west at the snap. To offset this risk, you need a heady linebacker with strong short-area quickness who can clean up a D-line’s gap breakdowns. This is one reason why Sean Lee was so valuable for Eberflus’s Cowboys.
Eberflus has watched every snap of Indy’s linebackers over the past four years. He wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) say this publicly, but he knows those linebackers are not explosive enough to save the day when a slanting and stunting D-line gets gashed. Taking, say, Georgia’s Roquan Smith at No. 6 could change that.
Green Bay Packers
They need an edge defender to eventually supplant Clay Matthews, who turns 32 in May, has just 19 sacks over the last three seasons and is in the final year of his contract. But when new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was with the Jets, he never had dynamic edge rushers. Instead, Pettine used safeties and linebackers as interior blitzers. The idea was those guys disguised your pressure looks, provided more options in coverage when they didn’t rush and, being faster athletes, brought pressure more quickly when they did rush.
To play this way, you need corners who can win one-on-one outside. Pettine had Darrelle Revis in New York. In Green Bay he has no one aside from Kevin King, who looked good as a second-round rookie last year but has only played nine games. Finding another man-to-man corner (or two) would allow Pettine to run the pressure concepts that he was hired to deploy.
The decision to franchise tag or not franchise tag defensive end Ziggy Ansah might have been the hardest one Bob Quinn has made in his two-and-a-half years as Detroit’s general manager. Ansah is supremely talented, but his 2017 film was nowhere near as good as his 12 sacks would suggest. (That’s why his playing time dipped down the stretch.) Based on recent history, he’s not worth the $17.1 million that his franchise tag cost. But realizing that Ansah’s film was outstanding in 2016 (when, ironically, he had just two sacks) and even better in 2015 (when his sack total—14.5—and overall performance actually aligned, Quinn decided to pay a premium in 2018 so that he could have one more year to determine Ansah’s long-term value.
It should be noted that Ansah will be 29 in May, and some have speculated that the native of Ghana is actually two years older than that. Unless Ansah lights it up in 2018, it’s hard to envision the Lions paying an expensive top-tier edge rusher price for him in 2019. Drafting his eventual replacement could be wise. And even if Ansah returns, you’d be left with an extra dynamic defensive lineman. That’s a good problem to have.
But here’s the tricky part: new head coach Matt Patricia comes from a Patriots organization that was never big on paying costly edge rushers. When it came time to sign Chandler Jones long-term, the Patriots traded him to Arizona. In the two years that followed, they went with young, mid-round draft picks like Trey Flowers (2015 fourth round), Deatrich Wise (2017 fourth round) and, though he missed his rookie season, Derek Rivers (2017 third round). Patricia’s Patriots emphasized gap-sound defense. Instead of trying to get by blockers into the backfield, his D-linemen try to displace blockers at the line of scrimmage. There’s an emphasis on not giving up ground. Often this approach can be taken with oversized middle-tier athletes, which you can find after the first round.
General manager John Schneider says the Seahawks aren’t rebuilding, they’re resetting. Whatever you call it, they’re in the process of replacing a lot of familiar talent with new talent, and that’s usually an uncomfortable process. Indeed, the Seahawks have gotten through Phase 1 (dumping the familiar talent), but they are yet to initiate Phase 2 (finding the new talent).
At least they know what they’re looking for. As part of the sea changes (no pun intended), moves were made in the coaching staff, including at defensive coordinator. Out is Kris Richard, who had been gradually marching the Seahawks towards a more diverse, aggressive man coverage scheme. In is Ken Norton, their former linebackers coach, who figures to march the Seahawks back to a basic Cover 3 zone scheme.
In that famed Seattle Cover 3, perimeter cornerbacks are taught to press and play to their help, be it interior defenders or, often, the sideline. With this physical style, size and strength becomes more important, speed and raw athleticism less important. The beauty is that while fast and athletic corners must be claimed in the first or second round, big, strong corners can often be found in the middle rounds. We’ll see if Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll can be that patient this year. With last year’s third-round pick Shaquill Griffin being the only starting-caliber corner on the roster, Seattle’s need at this position has never been greater.
The whole "3-4 vs. 4-3" defense thing gets blown way out of proportion. The schemes often have a lot of blend and overlap, both take backseat to nickel D anyway.— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) April 10, 2018
Keep this in mind when talking draft needs. The structures of a 3-4 and 4-3 defense are the same; what differs—and only slightly—is how front-seven defenders are taught to play. In a 4-3, there might be more emphasis on linebackers running to the flats and defensive linemen shooting gaps. In a 3-4, defensive linemen are more inclined to attack a blocker as a way of gobbling up space. Linebackers play off the D-lineman. But most of the time, teams play a mix of both 4-3 and 3-4 principles. Don’t get caught up in whether a guy is a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, etc.
BEST SPOT FOR DEZ?
First, we must understand what Bryant is at this point: a No. 2 receiver who wins with his size and tenacity, not speed and quickness. Bigger possession targets are not a dime a dozen, but they’re not exactly rare, either. And most of the good ones have refined technique and sure hands, two things the once immensely talented Bryant lacks. The problem is Bryant probably doesn’t see himself as a No. 2 possession target, and how will his big personality adjust? The best spot for him is a team with a respected veteran quarterback and a passing game that’s not overly detailed. Green Bay fits this description and still needs a replacement for Jordy Nelson.
REACH FOR OFFENSIVE TACKLE?
Teams are more willing now to reach for a quarterback in the first round because the cap savings of getting a good one in a fifth-year option is valuable. Why not apply the same line of thinking to offensive tackle? It’s the second-most expensive position in football, which makes it the most overpriced. The NFL is a passing league, and offensive linemen are the only men on the field who can’t make a play in the passing game. Receivers and running backs can catch, D-linemen can get sacks, back-seven defenders can get turnovers. Offensive linemen are essentially insurance policies. That’s not to say they aren’t valuable. But it would make financial sense if a team with a safe, quick-strike passing game decided to pay top dollar for an O-line coach and try to get by with young blockers on rookie deals.
NON-FOOTBALL ITEM ON MY MIND
My two best friends growing up were twin brothers. Every time a song came on that they liked, they sang along. It was unbearable. They weren’t bad singers, just wildly average ones—which, in some respects, is worse than being bad. I’d tell them to shut up, and that their singing infringed upon my listening experience. Amazingly, they never understood how.
Think of the overwhelming arrogance it takes to sing along to a song on the radio in front of someone. By singing along, you are, on some level, implying that you’re just as good, or at least nearly as good, as the world-famous singer on the radio. Because if you don’t think you’re nearly as good, why are you diminishing the listener’s experience by joining in? Such behavior would not be acceptable with other forms of art or entertainment. If I was watching a dancing competition on TV, you’d never get up and start dancing alongside the screen. If I was watching an NBA game, you’d never get up and start mimicking basketball moves (not unless you’re 10 years old or younger). If you were meant to sing this song, you’d be the one on the radio. You’re not. So shut up.
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