Scouting Football Talent – 2 keys to a 3-4 OLB transition

Flexibility in putting together today’s NFL roster is key to any long term sustainable success.  The rigors of surviving and thriving in a 16 game regular season can only come through players unselfishly contributing in many areas on the field and at a moment’s notice.  Young players are more often asked to contribute on special teams, something many were immune to throughout college as the primary stars on their squads.  But those that understand their role and the opportunity that any playtime presents are eager volunteers for special teams duty.

Flexibility and Versatility

Offensive Linemen are often called upon to “flip flop” up & down the line due to injuries along the front five.  Centers move to guard, guards bump outside to tackle, and tackles have been known to slide inside as well.  Defensively it’s often you see interchange in the secondary.  Some corners might bounce inside to safety if need be, and while with the Broncos, we often used a more athletic safety to cover the slot or TE in our “big nickel” package.

Flexibility and versatility will go a long way in prolonging the career of a professional football player.  Another determining factor is scheme.  Many college and professional teams have shifted to the flexibility of a 3-4 defense.  Finding dominant defensive ends to the rush the passer (at any level) is a challenge.  College football struggles to fill the billet with players that fit both the parameters and skill level of an outside defender.  However linebackers appear more readily available and provide a defensive coordinator with a wider range of possibilities in confounding, confusing, and otherwise stopping an offense.

Multiple responsibilities

Pressure can come from either side (weak or strong), and the modern 3-4 OLB is asked to execute a number of different responsibilities within the body frame of a classic LB; speed rush, power rush, blitz, set the edge vs run, drop into zone coverage, man up vs a TE…the list goes on and on.

I was just recently asked this question;

One of the hottest commodities in today’s NFL is a player who can consistently rush the passer. A common debate topic leading up to the draft seems to be discussing whether or not a player can make a transition from playing primarily defensive end in a 4-3 to an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Outside of pure athleticism and physical prowess, what factors do you look at when trying to decipher who the players most capable of making such a transition are? 

Instincts and Awareness

The answer becomes increasingly evident when you discard athletic ability and physical skill set; Instincts and Awareness.  Many defensive ends in a 4-3 have never been asked to do anything but rush the passer.  They’ve gotten by throughout high school and into college using a quick first step, long reach, and explosive burst to beat their opponent and pressure the pass.  “Play the run through to the quarterback”.  Coaches that have a “special pass rusher” knowingly take full advantage of it every snap.

But if a 4-3 defensive end is suddenly employed in a 3-4 scheme and asked to do things his body has never been asked to do before, his mind had better be able to counter quickly as well.  So much of being a successful linebacker in the NFL is about putting yourself in position to make plays, not necessarily “running them down”.  If a player has an excellent feel and recognition for movement around him, then more than likely he’ll be able to utilize dominant physical attributes to put him where his mind says to go.

But a player who can’t “read and react” to what his eyes are telling him might as well be playing blindfolded.  Professional football is just too fast and unforgiving for even an instant of delay.  3-4 OLB’s are the catalyst to success in the scheme,  their ability to create plays versus run and pass from every vantage point (on or off the line of scrimmage) is key.

Look for 4-3 college defensive ends with not only the physical tools but also the inert instincts to diagnose and keen awareness to respond, to quickly be snatched up in the NFL Draft by clubs utilizing a 3-4 defense.

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