ESPN The Magazine at the NFL Combine: Versatility Pays
At the NFL Scouting Combine, versatility is more important than ever. What teams and prospective players will it matter to most?
Scouts think Brian Orakpo's speed and pass rush skills could make him a possible 3-4 linebacker.
INDIANAPOLIS — On Friday afternoon at the NFL Combine, Knowshon Moreno was asked what he will work on most to prepare for the NFL.
"I would think my route-running and my ability to catch the ball out of the backfield," said Moreno, the star running back out of Georgia. It was an interesting response. That's because Moreno, who has been working out with none other than famed sprinter Michael Johnson to drop his 40-time—he claims to have dropped an absurd .3 seconds off his time—and has bulked up to a powerful 217 lbs, didn't try to alleviate some fears that he was more of a finesse back, a style cousin to Reggie Bush. He seemed to embrace the idea that in the new NFL, being a specialist is out. Doing it all is in. He's right.
In Indy, coaches and players alike are downgrading the concept of being a master of one domain, and dropping the "versatility" buzzword like crazy. And it's happening on both sides of the ball.
In Pittsburgh, they used a 3-4 defense to lead the NFL in that category and win the Super Bowl. James Harrison might be an exceptional pass-rusher and stout against the run, but his 100-yard INT return for a touchdown in Tampa was all about coverage instincts, good hands and the ability to run. But Harrison is also 30. He was a slow-learner, and teams know that versatility can take time, which makes this week trickier than ever.
"It's always a challenge for us , but we're used to it now. When we look at a 260 or 255 lb. guy, [we ask] can they make the transition to do the things they need to do from a coverage standpoint?" said Steelers Director of Football Operations, Kevin Colbert. "That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent, and it also reminds you you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop. Everyone who has been in our system as outside linebackers, it usually took them a minimum of two years and usually three to four years before they were ready to contribute."
If the Patriots want you at linebacker, they see a range of skills. Mayo fit the bill.
Next year, Kansas City, Green Bay and Denver will be among the teams making the switch from a 4-3 defensive set (four down lineman, three linebackers) to a 3-4. Teams running a set once almost exclusive to teams like Pittsburgh and New England is part of the Belichickification of the NFL, a style which emphasizes defensive (and offensive) versatility. And it was last year that the Patriots, who have made versatile linebackers like Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest famous in the scheme over the years, drafted a versatile, smart linebacker named Jerod Mayo out of Tennessee. Linebackers in the 3-4 must be able to rush the passer, stand tall against the run, and also chase running backs and tight ends in coverage. Mayo, the 10th pick, won Defensive Rookie of the Year, thriving in the Patriots system. Three spots ahead of him Vernon Gholston was taken by the Jets. Gholston was the workout star of the combine, a 265 lb defensive end who could move like a running back. He seems ideal for the 3-4 new Jets coach Rex Ryan will bring to New Jersey next year. And yet Ryan is here defending Gholston. So far, he's been a bust.
Ryan said on Friday that he may devote special time to Gholston to get the most out of him. The lesson from Gholston, like Colbert would lecture, is that athletic ability alone doesn't mean versatile. Smarts and skills have to be learned in tape sessions and practice. Coaches and GMs are are more dismissive than ever about measureables.
"It starts and ends with the tape," said Giants GM Jerry Reese. At the combine, tape sessions also include prospective draft picks. Patriots brass liked Mayo because of his game breakdown smarts more than his raw physicality.
Other areas where versatility is rearing it's head and who intrigues:
• The Everything Linebacker — With three more teams switching to a 3-4, big, fast defensive ends and linebackers could be at a premium. Brian Orakpo (Texas), Rey Maualuga (USC), Aaron Curry(Wake Forest) and Aaron Maybin (Penn State) could all be among the top 20 picks. How coveted are these guys? Clay Matthews Jr. didn't even start at USC most of the time, and NFLDraftScout.com has him pegged at No. 24 because of his diverse skills on defense.
• The Do-it-All Safety — The safety has gone from a quiet position on defense to prominent, as versatile players like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders have diversified the role, with great coverage and run-stopping skills. Ohio State's Malcom Jenkins, says NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, could be either a shut down corner or a big-hitting safety. Maybe why he's projected as high as No. 5 overall.
• The Wildcat — No, it's not taking over the league. Still, for the two-back set that lets a running back hand off, run (or even throw) Dolphins coach Tony Sparano (who debuted it) says others will be looking for backs who can pull it off. "I'm sure that there's some people that are looking at those pieces right now." A great option? Moreno, an exceptional outside runner.
• The Left or Right Tackle (or Guard) — Star tackles Eugene Monroe, Jason Smith and Andre Smith could play multiple line positions (and help others on your line). Want versatile? Jason Smith even admitted he can calf-rope. "I've got a pretty big quarterhorse. Ol' gray's pretty big," said Smith. We're taking his word for it.
Perhaps most overlooked?
• The Versatile Coach — As Lions coach Jim Schwartz said on Thursday of the Steelers, "When Mike Tomlin took over in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago—he had a 4-3 background—but he kept the 3-4 because that scheme best fit the personnel they had."
It seemed to work out for Tomlin. And when talented, versatile coaches run into similar players, legends are made. And not just for Harrison. It was 2004 when injuries decimated the New England defensive backfield. Belichick inserted Troy Brown at defensive back. Brown finished the season second on the team in interceptions. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl. Three years later, Brown retired—as the Patriots all-time leading receiver.
Versatility Odds and Ends:
• Want versatility? The best WR in this draft, Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech, can also play quarterback. He starred at the position as a junior and senior in high school. He could have played hoops for Bobby Knight, too. (He now is dealing with a stress fracture.)
• Let's just say James Casey can do a few things.
• David Buehler, from USC, put up a stellar 25 reps at 225 lbs in the bench press this morning. It might help teams on kickoff coverage: Buehler is a kicker. We'll withhold the George Blanda comparisons for now.
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