The landscape of the NFL has changed quite dramatically over the course of the last 5 years, and us diehard fans have seen it in full force, as the age of the high flying, pass heavy offense has spawned some of the best QB driven teams in recent memory. Some might credit this change to the college football installation of the spread offense, as NFL teams are having to accept that some of the top offensive prospects come from these spread teams, and it makes more sense collectively to bring them into something familiar, instead of trying to change them from what they were successful at. Also, credit can be given to the demand for exciting football and the many rule changes that benefit the offense and scoring TDs.
This too has affected the defensive side of the ball in the NFL, as more teams have changed to the 3-4 defense to try to counter the pass happy offenses. This has put a high value mark on positions like pure nose tackle, and a big emphasis on linebackers, specifically smaller, athletic linebackers who can run with pass catchers. Unfortunately for the NFL, the college ranks have yet to start adopting this change on the defensive side of the ball, as very few college teams run a 3-4, despite facing these spread offenses regularly. This puts many teams in positions of having to find defensive players to mold and change into what you want them to be for your defense, which has ultimately led to the 'Tweener Anomaly of 2011.
Let me first quickly explain what a 'tweener is for those who may not know. A 'tweener is simply a player that has played one position in college and is likely better suited for another position in the NFL, or they are in-between ('tweener) being ideal for one position or the other. Most of the time, when calling a player a 'tweener, it is usually referring to a defensive end that is undersized for NFL standards and will likely be drafted to play an OLB, usually in the 3-4 defense. This is the prototypical 'tweener, and this is the anomaly for 2011.
Looking back at the last 6 drafts, from 2005-2010, there were minimal 'tweeners in the first couple of rounds of each respective draft, likely early on being because of the few NFL teams that played a 3-4 defense. As the shift to the 3-4 began, we started to see the increase in top 50-100 'tweener prospects. I'll do a quick recap of these 1st and 2nd round 'tweeners from 2005-2010.
DeMarcus Ware - Dallas
Shawne Merriman - San Diego
David Pollack - Cincinnati (not a 3-4 team, but did play DE in college)
Kevin Burnett - Dallas
Dan Cody - Baltimore
Manny Lawson - San Francisco
Kamerion Wimbley - Cleveland
Tamba Hali - Kansas City (drafted as a 4-3 DE, but team now a 3-4 team)
Anthony Spencer - Dallas
LaMarr Woodley - Pittsburgh
Aaron Maybin - Buffalo (drafted as 4-3 DE, but team now a 3-4 team)
Brian Orakpo - Washington (drafted as a 4-3 DE, but team now a 3-4 team)
Larry English - San Diego
Robert Ayers - Denver
Paul Kruger - Baltimore (think he plays mostly DE, but size suggests 'tweener)
Connor Barwin - Houston (drafted as a 4-3 DE, but team is now a 3-4 team)
Koa Misi - Miami
Sergio Kindle - Baltimore
Jermaine Cunningham - New England
As you can see, from 2005-2008, the 1st/2nd round 'tweeners were minimal, and we see that number increase in 2009 and 2010 of them, as more teams start making the 3-4 transition. Here we are in 2011, and take a look at the number of potential 1st and 2nd round 'tweeners in this draft.
That's 8 potential 'tweeners mostly mocked to go in the 1st two rounds, which would be a high mark for the last 6 years. So, I am starting to wonder what this means. Is this just a weak draft class in terms of pure LBs? Is this a weak class for everyone? Do these players really deserve to be in the top 50-100? Are there really that many more 3-4 teams hungry for OLBs?
In looking at this short history of 'tweeners, one thing I've started to believe is that many teams don't like to take the chance on 'tweeners in the 1st round. Look at just last year, all the 'tweeners to 3-4 teams went in the 2nd round, despite some being in the top 32 players. Many draft analysts have a good number of these 'tweeners going to 4-3 teams in the 1st round to continue to play DE, especially once you get past the top 2-3 of them. These 'tweeners have more responsibilities than just rushing the passer and occasionally playing the run as a 3-4 OLB than they did as a 4-3 DE; perhaps teams recognize this more than we fans realize and don't risk a 1st round pick on hopes that a player can transition well to a different position. It has had it's successes, seen from DeMarcus Ware, LaMarr Woodley, Brian Orakpo, and for a period of time, Shawne Merriman (though the steroids may have more to do with his success than anything); but it's also had it's failures, seen from David Pollack, Manny Lawson, Robert Ayers, Larry English, Aaron Maybin, and maybe none more so than Vernon Gholston. Kamerion Wimbley finally found some success last season in Oakland, and maybe the same will be said for some of these other youngsters, but time will tell.
So of course I'm going to correlate this with the Chiefs, and it is my belief that we won't be one of those teams that is going to take a 1st round chance on one of these 'tweeners this year, especially considering we already have our very own 'tweener in Tamba Hali, and he flashes those red flags against most 'tweeners too: bad in pass coverage, mediocre against the run. As our LB needs seem most pressing at SOLB and maybe SILB, most of these 'tweeners don't have much history of doing what we will need our SOLB to do. It shouldn't come as a surprise we have met with Justin Houston and Aldon Smith, as Houston is really the only 'tweener that has had collegiate experience at OLB, and Smith may be one of the top prospects expected to transition well. Obviously, who the Chiefs do and don't meet with really has no bearing on who they will draft, evident from last year, but I think the draft history and track record of 'tweeners the last 6 years speaks volumes about which direction the Chiefs will go in the 1st round this year.