Arguably the most important aspect of any NFL defense is getting to the Quarterback, rushing the passer, creating pressure. But for such an obvious observation, there are so many teams that still do not have the ability to create consistent pressure on the QB. Rushing the QB on a consistent basis out of the 34 defenseis something the Arizona Cardinals have struggled with for a long time, not since Bertrand Berry in 2004 has a single defender on the Cardinals recorded double digits sacks for a single season. This past season Calais Campbell led the team with 6.5 sacks. Pressure and getting to the QB on a consistent basis is something the team lacks, and needs to address early in their offseason, most likely through the draft during the last weekend in April. But how does one go about finding a pass rusher that is going to get them what they want and not someone who is impressive in some aspects, but then does nothing at the NFL level like recent highly drafted pass rushers Aaron Maybin and Vernon Gholston. This is going to address how to find the guy you want, and eliminate the guys who might cost your team big time.
1: History will suggest that in a 3-4 defense to grab the elite pass rusher in that spot you really need to grab a guy in the first round. There are a few exceptions, but they are not found easily, if one were to compile a list of the best 3-4 OLB’s over the past say 6-8 years, mostly you will find guys who were drafted very highly.
DeMarcus Ware was the 11th overall pick in 2005, Shawne Merriman who had an electric start to his career was the 12th overall picks in 2005. We all know that Terrell Suggs was the 10th overall pick in 2003, we have Brian Orakpo breaking out in Washington he was the 13th overall pick in the 2009 draft. We all know Clay Matthews, he was the 26th overall pick in 2009, Tamba Hali was the 20th overall pick in 2006. Most of the pass rushers consistently at the top of the sacks and pressures lists are guys that were drafted in the first round. Now we have the Cameron Wake exception, Wake is just an incredible athletic specimen that somehow went undrafted through the cracks, no idea how. Then we have the Keith Butler exception (Why he is so highly regarded, and why Pittsburgh so dearly want to hold onto him), Butler a LB’s coach is the only guy who has taken multiple non first round rush LineBackers and turned them into consistently productive players, could be scheme as well, but with Woodley (2nd Round), Harrison (UDFA), Porter (3rd Round) he has three guys that have come from non-first round picks and turned them into elite pass rushers. But depending on definition of elite and then adding in consistency elements, of those top tier pass rushers over the past 6-8 in the 34 defense, if you include John Abraham for his time in New York, 7 of the 12 top tier 34 OLB’s were drafted in the first round, the exceptions being Wake, Porter, Woodley, Harrison and Dumervil, with the latter depending on some consistency in the future after his 17 sacks in 2009 from 34 OLB. If you really want to get your top calibre pass rusher you have to look at the draft, and you have to look early.
2: Testing, now I know a lot of people hate the combine and dismiss it as nearly useless, but the 34 OLB position in particular is one that tests that are often overlooked can come to the fore. Now there are numerous different styles of this type of analysis but mine is based around the timing and measurements of four drills;
The 3 cone drill, in which one must time under 7 seconds.
The Short Shuttle, in which one must time under 4.20 seconds.
The Broad Jump, in which one must record a jump of 10’00” or greater.
The Vertical Jump, in which one must record a leap of 35” or greater.
The Vertical Jump and Broad Jump test a players explosiveness, there is a size factor to this, a 270 pound man leaping 35” is more impressive and explosive than a 230 pound man doing the same. But there are usually a similar size element to 34 OLB’s however there are some adjustments that one can make if a player is close in a couple of elements, but also has a bigger size to say he is just as explosive as one who has gone over my specific thresholds.
The 3 cone drill and the Short Shuttle measure a players ability to change directions quickly and accelerate out of pivots very quickly. It can give a good gauge on what players will be agile and flexible to play in space at the next level and those who are going to struggle to do so, these times are set times, those who get close are noted, but size is not a factor, because a bigger player is going to be expected to be less agile and have less acceleration around corners, and is probably more suited to playing with his hand in the dirt.
To be a really top quality OLB in the 34 defense I would want a player to fit all four of the requirements I set out above. To be draftable 1st round player, you need to fulfil three of the four criteria including the 3 cone drill. To be worth a middle round look you need to fulfil at least two of the four criteria including the 3 cone drill or Short Shuttle. Those who only qualify in one or none of the criteria are most likely not going to make it in the NFL as a 34 OLB, as are those with two criteria filled, but not the 3 cone drill or Short Shuttle criteria.
If we apply these criteria to players in the past who have done well and done poorly, and then compare to those who are in the draft this season we should get an idea of whom the Cardinals should take a look at in the draft, and who the Cardinals should look to avoid if they want to avoid a player being a flop.
3: The application:
The Successful Players
DeMarcus Ware – 6.85 3 cone, 4.07 Short Shuttle, 10’02” Broad, 38.5” Vert. Demacus fits all four of the criteria and has gone on to have a career in which he has so far recorded 80 sacks in his 96 starts, the only season he did not garner double digits was his rookie year when he finished with 8, he has led the league in sacks twice including a year with 20 in 2008.
Clay Matthews – 6.90 3 cone, 4.18 Short Shuttle, 10’01” Broad, 35.5” Vert. Clay fits all four of the criteria, he has played just two years in the NFL, but has recorded double digit sacks in each of them and was arguably the best defender in the NFL in 2010.
Cameron Wake – 7.12 3 cone, 4.13 shuttle, 10’10” Broad, 45.5” Vert. Wake was a star in the CFL and has found the NFL game to his liking too. He fits three of the four criteria and shows incredible explosion, his 3 cone might be a little slow and could be a reason why he is not used much in coverage but his good Short Shuttle time is indicative of his ability to bend and change directions quickly around the edge.
Shawne Merriman – No 3 Cone Available, 4.21 Short Shuttle, 10’01” Broad, 40” Vert. He misses out on filling three of the four criteria by .01 of a second, so he is very close to being considered passable, and with no 3 Cone available he could also fit that criterion. Had a great start to his career before a knee injury post Steriod use stole his explosion.
Brian Orakpo – 7.26 3 cone, 4.45 Shuttle, 10'10” Broad, 39.5” Vert – He misses out because of his lack of special ability, but as a pass rusher he shows the tremendous explosion needed, I would not have gone after Orakpo as a 34 OLB, however as a 43 DE he would have been high on my board.
Tamba Hali - 7.28 3-cone time, 4.31 shuttle time, 8'10'' Broad, 30'' Vert – One of the strange occurances. Hali fails all four of my 34 OLB criteria and likely would have been crossed off my board, yet he had a really huge 2010 season, someone strange, but on my side he was drafted as 43 DE and shows very good hustle and technique at the OLB spot and is not all that good in coverage.
Connor Barwin – 6.87 3 Cone, 4.18 Short Shuttle, 10’08” Broad 40.5” Vert – He is here because I think he could have a huge season in the Texans 34 defense this season. He satisfies all four of the criteria, and will more than likely have the inside track to one of the OLB spots in their defense. He is going to be a good test of my theories.
*Note, could not find data on Suggs, Woodley or Harrison*
Both Ware and Matthews were high draft picks who fulfilled the testing criteria and have had NFL success
Vernon Gholston – 7.12 3 Cone, 4.40 Short Shuttle, 10’05”, 35.5” – Gholston is one of the most high profile failures in the draft of late. And while he has the explosiveness, he fits neither of the 3 Cone nor the Short Shuttle times. He would have been very low on my draft boards according to these criteria as a 34 OLB, but I may still have drafted him highly to play end in a 43.
Aaron Maybin – 7.52 3 Cone, 4.38 Short Shuttle, 10’04” Broad, 38” Vert – Another of the most high profile failures, Maybin tested miserably in the agility and Change of Direction drills and would have been very low on my board as a 34 OLB.
Larry English – 7.26 3 cone, 4.38 Short Shuttle, 8’11” Broad, 36” Vert – Another first round OLB pick that has gone wrong for the selecting team. His 3 Cone and Short Shuttle times are horrible and he tested badly in the Broad Jump over a foot short of the threshold. Not one I would have drafted at 3-4 OLB.
Cody Brown – 7.10 3 Cone, 4.40 Short Shuttle, 10’00” Broad, 36.5” Vert – Our famous bust, the 2nd round pick did not test well in space yet we still drafted the man from U Conn. His times would have forced him low on my board as a 34 OLB.
Robert Ayers – 7.56 3 Cone, 4.47 Short Shuttle, 8’06” Broad, 32.5” Vert – The Broncos were lambasted by many for drafting Ayers into a 34 OLB position and looking at his test it is easy to see why, he is nothing more than a 43 DE, and even then his explosiveness is less than what one would want, would njot have even thought about him at OLB, and probably low on my board at 43 DE too.
Gholston has earned a reputation as the NFL’s most infamous pass rushing draft bust, He tested poorly among my criteria.
The 2011 Contenders:
Von Miller – 6.70 3 Cone, 4.06 Short Shuttle, 10’06” Broad, 37” Vert – My favourite to be selected at #5 overall, he fills all four of the criteria, he was incredibly productive at Texas A&M and should be able to transition to 34 OLB better than any other player in this draft. My #2 overall player in the 2011 draft.
Robert Quinn – 7.13 3 Cone, 4.40 Short Shuttle, 9’08” Broad, 34” Vert – Quinn is a favourite of many, but not me, he fails on all four criteria, and he would not even be on my board to play as a 34 OLB. I don’t think he is going to succeed in space and does not have the Orakpo type explosion to make up for it. As a 43 End still highly draftable.
Aldon Smith – 7.19 3 cone, 4.50 Short Shuttle, 9’10” Broad, 34” Vert – Similar to Quinn, many think he can transition to 34 OLB, I don’t he looks like he is too stiff and his testing proves this, as a 43 End top 15 pick, just don’t put him at OLB.
Sam Acho – 6.69 3 Cone, 4.32 Short Shuttle, 9’04” Broad, 33.5” Vert – He only passes on one level, but it is the most important 3 Cone drill. He is still going be around a 4th round grade on my board as an OLB, but I would still not mind giving him a guy, because of the tremendous 3 Cone and the production he had in college.
Brooks Reed – 7.11 3 Cone, 7.28 Short Shuttle, 9’05” Broad, 30.5” Vert – The local product fails on all four levels, but he IMO is the next candidate to defy the numbers to be a productive pass rusher at 34 OLB, this is because of his hand usage and relentless mentality that he has. Probably a guy I would draft in the late 2nd maybe Early 3rd Round as an OLB in the 34.
Justin Houston – 6.95 3 Cone, 4.37 Short Shuttle, 10’05” Broad, 36.5” Vert – He fits three of the four criteria and that includes a sub 7 second 3 cone drill. He is probably the 2nd best option by the numbers and he has experience in a 34 defense. If someone traded up to #5 and left us at the 15-18 range Houston would be a guy I would consider, though I am concerned about how stiff he looked in LB drills at the combine.
Dontay Moch – 7.09 3 Cone, 4.38 Short Shuttle, 10’08” Broad, 42” Vert – Moch has numbers similar to that of Shawne Merriman, however Merrimans game was based off of pure power and explosion, Moch’s game is based on speed, and he does not really show the COD or agilit
Chris Carter – 6.88 3 Cone, 4.34 Short Shuttle, 9’06” Broad, 36” Vert – Carter fills two of the criteria including quite a nice looking 3 cone time. He is probably a guy we could look at at the top of the 3rd round a maybe get a productive guy in the mid rounds.
Scott Lutrus – 6.89 3 Cone, 4.09 Short Shuttle, 10’01” Broad, 38” Vert – Never thought of Lutrus as a possible pass rusher in a 34 defense until I looked at his times and measurements. The Huskies rarely blitzed their LB’s out of their 43 scheme and Scott is already comfortable in coverage. He is a hard worker and I have no doubts could be a steal to a team drafting him in the 5th/6th round and hoping to convert him into OLB. He has the size and times, and at worst you get a guy you will be able to put back into his natural position inside if it fails.
Ryan Kerrigan – 7.18 3 Cone, 4.39 Short Shuttle, 10’02” Broad, 33.5” Vert – Kerrigan has been bandied around a little bit as a 34 OLB though he is far more suited to playing as a 43 End. He does not meet the criteria and his testing agrees with the notion that he should stay playing with his hand in the dirt.
*Note no 3 Cone or SS times for Jabaal Sheard or Greg Romeus*
Von Miller satisified all four criteria and should be the pick for Arizona if he is ther at #5 overall, on the other hand, highly regarded Robert Quinn failed all four criteria and should be avoided by all 34 teams.
4: Conclusion: The Cardinals need help at the pass rusher position, they need it bad, they have lacked a quality pass rusher since Bert Berry was still in his late prime and capable of racking up 14.5 sacks in a season. If they are going to grab one, they need to act early, they need to look in the first round for the best athletes at the position and snaffle them up. This means that Von Miller really needs to be the #1 guy on their board. He is productive and uber-athletic and the transition he is making is less because of his time at 43 WILL as a sophomore and his junior and senior seasons as a “joker”. If they miss out on Miller, the next best option is to try and get back into the middle of the first round and go after a guy like Justin Houston, who is not as agile or as quick as Miller, but he provides more power than him and might be a more complete pass rusher. If neither of them make the trip here then it is probably best to look to stock up in other areas and look for a developmental guy like Chris Carter from Fresno State or Sam Acho from Texas in the 3rd round, or maybe take a flier in the 5th round and look to convert Scott Lutrus to a pass rushing OLB.
Either or, Pass Rusher is high on the list of needs for Arizona coming into the 2011 offseason and there are not that many quality pass rushing talents in the draft who have the wherewithal to make the transition to OLB in a 34 defense. If we wish to heal the position this season, then early in the draft is the place to find our cure.
Thanking for reading.