There has been alot of buzz lately about what the hiring of a defensive coordinator from a '3-4' team as our head coach means for our base 4-3 defense. I don't think we will know for sure for a while what Pagano will do but lets just assume he will mold our defense after the Baltimore defense. Before I try and explain their system, and I'm no expert, you should check out a couple of really good SB nation articles about the Raven's defense and the 3-4 in general:
Buffalo Rumblings #2
As the author said in the Baltimore Beat Down article, to explain the hybrid 3-4 they run would take pages upon pages but I'll try to very quickly and crudely explain it. It is very similar to a conventional 3-4 as it will show a nose tackle flanked by two big and preferably long defensive ends to play over the tackles (these are also sometimes referred to as DT/DE as they are a sort of hybrid position). Also just like other 3-4 defenses two middle linebackers set up behind the tackles but how the outside linebackers play is the difference. The right side (outisde of the left tackle) outside linebacker is called a rush linebacker as that player primarily rushes and is not often asked to fall into coverage. The left outside linebacker will still rush the passer but is asked to do more in coverage. In Baltimore's current defense Terrell Suggs is is the rush linebacker and Jarret Johnson is the strongside outside linebacker. Suggs lines up often as a down defensive end and their 3-4 defense ends up more like our 4-3 than a conventional PIT or GB 3-4 outside linebacker.
Their defense also can quickly transform and stick in a four man front should their opponent need to pass often. Just pull the nose tackle and send in the nickel corner and instantly you have a 4-3 nickel defense.
After the break I will attempt to see how we can add our current pieces, free agents and draft choices to mold our defense to this scheme.
I will go through position by position and explain our options in filling that spot whether its from 'roster', 'draft', or 'free agency'. I am working under the assumption that Manning, Wayne, Saturday etc wont be back so we will have cap room for at least a few impact signings.
Roster: There aren't really any options here for a 1-tech nose on our roster. Antonio Johnson is roughly 310 but thats about 20-40 pounds too light for your optimal nose. Nevis and Moala are both around 300 but thats also not good enough.
FA: This is actually a surprisingly good option. The free agent NT that should interest us in order of how much they should cost are Antonio Garay SD, Sione Pouha NYJ, Paul Soliai MIA, Aubreyu Franklin NO, Kelly Gregg KC, and Brandon McKinney BAL. Soliai, Garay and Pouha will be hard to get our hands on but if we can we definitely should try with Soliai being my first choice. Miami is rumored to be moving to a 4-3 so we should go hard after Soliai. Franklin is an interesting case as he was a good NT in the SF 3-4 then signed a one year deal in NO to play inside in a 4-3. Maybe he would be tempted to come back and play NT if we offered him a starting gig. Gregg is getting up there (35) but might have a few years left as a bridge and mentor should we draft a young NT. McKinney was a backup in Pagano's defense last year and he may be temped to leave with the promise of more playing time.
Draft: Just like every year NT is a sparse position in the draft. Only three guys could probably start at NT next year as rookies. The first two are Dontari Poe/Memphis and Alameda Ta'amu/Washington. Both of these guys could be gone by our 32nd pick but if they are we should pick them up. However if they are gone at #32 or we get a better value at another position we could pick up Josh Chapman/Alabama at #61. I don't feel like we have to get a NT in the draft due to their availability in FA but it wouldn't hurt.
Prediction: Paul Soliai 6-4 355 and Brandon McKinney 6-2 350
Defensive Tackle / Defensive End:
Roster: 3-4 DEs are similar enough to 4-3 DT that a few of our guys should make the conversion. In general you want a taller linemen with long arms to hold off the tackle and maintain his two gaps. At 6-4 and 6-3, Moala and Johnson are both tall enough to play the 5-tech 3-4 end and can obviously play DT when reverted to a four man front. However they don't have the pass rushing ability to play 4-3 DE so they will need to stay over the left side of the offense as RDEs. This way they will play RDE in the 3-4 and then DT when sliding over to give the 4-3 look. The LDE however will need to be able to function as both a 5-tech over the tackle and as a rush end outside the tackle. This is because when the rush linebacker moves in on the shoulder of the left tackle the line shifts over and the LDE moves to the outside of the right tackle - becoming a 4-3 DE in effect. Drake Nevis may not be the prototype here but I think he has enough penetrating ability to be effective. Beyond him we don't really have anyone on the roster to play the LDE position. Mathews and Ogbu could fit either but aren't good enough really to try and fit them in.
FA: There are a ton of options here to play the LDE position or RDE and really too many to name. To focus on some names we would be familiar with, Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton are your sort of prototypical LDE as they are long (both 6-6) and big enough (~280-290 each) to hold up in 5-tech but have the pass rush to play the 4-3 DE role. Anderson was better than Brayton last year and a bit better fit as LDE so I think I'd keep him around. Another interesting name here is Cory Redding who played last year under Pagano. He isn't a superstar but is a solid player and could be lured to follow his coach. Calais Campbell is the star FA DT/DE but I don't think we should/could spend the resources to go get him. Another guy we could go after and put money on like Soliai is Derek Landri who played for Grigson in Philly but I think he stays there.
Draft: Just like free agency there are a ton of options to fill the DT/DE spot through the draft and again too many to name. Some of the big names like Michael Brockers/LSU and Devon Still/Penn St will be gone by #32 but some other guys like Fletcher Cox/Mississippi State, Jared Crick/Nebraska, Jerel Worthy/Michigan St. and a few others could be available and good value at #32. I wouldn't fault Grigson for taking one of those guys there but I feel like we need to get some help for Luck at that pick in the form of a WR/TE/OL or a CB, whatever is the best value, and then take a DT/DE in the third with our #61 pick. One guy who should be available and I really like in this scheme is Derek Wolfe/Cinncinatti. He is a big tall kid with a nonstop motor and will be able to disrupt and hold the line as a RDE.
Outside Linebacker / Rush Linebacker:
Roster: I think some people may disagree with me on this but I feel that almost all the tools needed for this position are already on the roster. Just look at the the comparables for our guys on the Ravens: Suggs 6-3 260 and Kruger 6-4 268 compare to Freeney 6-1 268 at rush linebacker while Johnson 6-3 265 and Kindle 6-3 250 compare to Mathis 6-2 245 and Hughes 6-2 255 at strongside outside linebacker. If anything our guys are a little smaller and more mobile as linebackers than their Ravens counterparts. Freeney gets to stay in a primary weakside rush position and will often be lined up with his hand on the ground rushing the passer off of the left tackle's shoulder sprinkling in some coverage dropbacks. Mathis gets his wish and will play the SOLB falling back in coverage and blitzing off the edge. Hughes should also do much better in this role than a down 4-3 edge rusher.
FA: There are options in free agency for outside linbackers but I don't think any are realistic or worthwhile. Jarret Johnson is I guess conceivable and would be an option should Mathis leave but I think it might be best not to even try. Other guys out there wouldn't really be an upgrade over what we have in house now.
Draft: This year's draft does not have an abundance of edge rushers and actually is a weakness of this class. With so many teams needing edge rushers its doubtful we will find value in the early rounds and would have to reach. We could take a mid round developmental type like Brandon Lindsay/Pitt to sit behind Freeney as a rush linebacker and hopefully become a starter someday.
Roster: Like the outside linebacker position we should be able to fill the inside primarily with guys already on the roster. Angerer is an obvious starter at strongside inside linebacker and Brackett if healthy is better suited for the weakside inside linebacker spot. If Brackett is not healthy and cut then Conner can move into the WILB spot and even if he is healhy Conner should still get plenty of reps at WILB and WILL linebacker in 4-3 looks. Having all three of these guys on the roster gives the flexibility to switch with one sub to a 4-3 by pulling the NT, putting the OLB on the line and sending in Conner to play WILL. We have added a few flier free agents already and they might stick as that fourth ILB.
FA: Again, like the OLB position, there are free agents who could help us but considering the other needs on the team we should only be looking for a heavy, run-stopping, backup caliber MILB.
Draft: We should be looking to invest only a late round pick in an ILB through the draft. Someone like Noah Keller/Ohio 6-1 245, who is a instinctual and sound tackler but needs to play in a 'phone booth', could fit that bill.
When you add up my predicted front seven you get something that looks like this as a starting lineup:
Rush LB: Dwight Freeney
RDE: Fili Moala
NT: Paul Soliai
LDE: Cory Redding
SOLB: Robert Mathis
SILB: Pat Angerer
WILB: Gary Brackett/Kavell Conner
In my opinion we can build a very good hybrid 3-4 defense in one offseason without an excessive amount of resources consumed. It will take careful planning by people much smarter than I and outstanding coaching that Coach Pagano can supply, but I believe it is possible. Do you agree?