A Brief History of Drafting 3-4 Defensive Ends

Reading Mock Draft post #31,592 the other day, I was about to comment that I wouldn't be mad about drafting a defensive end in the first round. My understanding is that finding players big, tall and athletic enough to excel at the 5-technique defensive end position in a 3-4 defense are rare, so historically they're drafted early.

I then realized that I had no idea if that were actually true. So I bit my tongue and didn't post the reply. Instead I did a little digging to try to determine if my opinion was borne out by the facts.

My Hypothesis:

5-technique DEs prospects require a rare blend of size, strength and athleticism in order to excel in the NFL.

Because players who possess these traits are rare, they are typically drafted early.

I counted twelve NFL teams ran a 3-4 defense as their base alignment in 2011. I left out the Patriots because they played the majority of their snaps in a 4-3 and left in the Ravens because they slightly favored 3-man fronts.

A word of warning:

I had a pretty busy work schedule this week so my research on this subject was quick and dirty. The arm length measurements in particular are from a variety of sources all over the web and are very "unofficial." If you see a glaring error, omission or something let me know in the comments and I'll try to correct it.

Rather than do a bunch of highly technical analysis I just took the leagues 3-4 DEs and made them into a bell curve. The 2011 stats are generally representative of the players level of skill, but were only one of several factors used to categorize them. Some guys I'm was pretty familiar with, others I had to do some homework on.

"The Elite" 2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Drafted Notes
Haloti Ngata, Ravens 64 5 6'4" (?) 330 (Round 1, #12) Football's best d-lineman, plays every position & technique in BAL's hybrid scheme
Justin Smith, 49ers 58 7.5* 6'4" (?) 290 (Round 1, #4) Gets a lot of these sacks as a DT in sub packages, not when playing the 5-tech
Calais Campbell, Cardinals 72 8 6'8" (33.5") 310 (Round 2, #50) Monster year in 2011, makes a hell of tandem with Dockett

*On passing downs Justin Smith moves inside to a 3-technique, this is where he gets the majority of his sacks.

"Above Average" 2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Drafted Notes
J.J. Watt, Texans 56 5.5 6'6" (34") 290 Round 1, #11) Borderline elite and he's only a rookie
Darnell Dockett, Cardinals 51 3.5 6'4" (32.5") 290 Round 3, #64) Has a better reputation than he deserves, is his age catching up with him?
Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets 49 3 6'4" (35.25") 315 Round 1, #30) A promising rookie season. Needs to work on his missed tackles
Stephen Bowen, Redskins 41 6 6'5" (?) 306 UDFA) Broke out in his first year as full-time starter, he could be really good
"Solid Starters" 2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Drafted Notes
Brett Keisel, Steelers 48 3 6'5" (34") 285 Round 7, #242) Solid contributor is a classic case of "hustle not muscle" but he's getting old…
Ray McDonald, 49ers 39 5.5 6'3" (34.25) 290 Round 3, #97) Finally, a complement to J. Smith, but it took him 5 years to earn the starting spot
Cory Redding, Ravens (2011) / Colts (2012) 43 3.5 6'4" (?) 295 Round 3, #66) Strung two good seasons together in BAL but has durablility concerns
Randy Starks, Dolphins 34 5.5 6'3" (?) 305 Round 3, #71) Hasn't been able to replicate his monster year in 2009
Tyson Jackson, Chiefs 55 1 6'4" (33")* 298 Round 1, #3) Best run stopping 3-4 DE in 2011, I hope he can continue to improve
Glenn Dorsey, Chiefs 62 0 6'0" (33.25") 305 Round 1, #5) An absolute beast of run defender, but offers no pass rush what so ever
Vaughn Martin, Chargers 47 1 6'4" (33") 308 Round 4, #113) Third year player was extremely mediocre
Adam Carriker, Redskins 34 5.5 6'6" (33.5") 315 Round 1, #13) Classic Redskins move, overpaying for a below average run defender at 3-4 DE
Jason Hatcher, Cowboys 28 4.5 6'6" (33.5") 304 Round 3, #92) First year starter will need to improve to avoid the ire of Jerry Jones

*I found a 34 1/4" arm measurement for TJax as well but the 32 7/8" number seemed more legit.

"Below Average or Still Developing" 2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Drafted Notes
Kenyon Coleman, Cowboys 36 1 6'5" (33") 295 Round 5, #147) How did the Cowboys end up with a journeyman and sub-package guy starting?
Antonio Smith, Texans 25 6.5 6'4" (33") 280 Round 5, #135) Don't let the sacks fool you, he's a total liability in the run game. Really a 4-3 DE
Ryan Pickett, Packers 33 0 6'2" (?) 340 Round 1, #29) A great NT/DE in the twilight of his career
Jared Odrick, Dolphins 22 6 6'5" (34") 305 Round 1, #28) Showed a quality pass rush, but is still a total liability in the run game
"Stopgap Starter or Very Raw" 2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Drafted Notes
Ziggy Hood, Steelers 31 1.5 6'6" (33.75") 300 Round 1, #32) I'm gonna chalk this up to still developing, but he hasn't shown much impact yet
C.J. Wilson, Packers 28 0 6'3" (33") 290 Round 7, #230) Rotational player in 2011 put up some monster numbers in only two games
Corey Liuget, Chargers 19 1 6'2" (33.25") 300 Round 1, #18) Much like Tyson Jackson in 2009, he was the worst starting 3-4 DE in football

Things I expected:

1. Lots of height

Conventional football wisdom is that taller players have the arm length necessary to keep offensive linemen from getting to their bodies and the height to get those arms up to interfere with passing lanes. Just about every excellent player was 6'4" or taller. Just about every good player was at least 6'3".

A bad fit for the Chargers?

I'm left scratching my head at why San Diego would draft Corey Liuget with the #18 pick in 2011 Draft. That's a premium pick for a guy with less than ideal physical traits for 3-4 DE. His arm length isn't bad, but coming out of college he was projected as a penetrating 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 or a possibly a NT. What were they thinking?

2. Draft position at the top

Four of the top seven players at the position were first round picks, it will be interesting to see if former UDFA Stephen Bowen can repeat the monster numbers be put up last season. Also of note, Calais Campbell was a widely projected as a first round talent, but fell because he came of Miami after his sophomore season.

Things that did surprise me:

1. Thin is in

I though TJax was little on the lean side for 5-tech, but apparently his body is typical for the position. A lot of dominant players (Smith, Dockett, Watt) weigh less than 300 lbs. It looks like "Body by Haley" was part of a larger trend in more svelte, athletic defensive linemen.

2. Developmental players

Stephen Bowen was developed by Dallas as an UDFA, Ray McDonald took 5 years to earn a permanent spot in the 49ers starting lineup and Brett Keisel has put together a very good career after the Steelers took him in the 7th round and hung an extra 15 pounds on him. It looks like the Chargers developed a starter in Vaughn Martin after the former 4th round pick spent three years getting reps behind Luis Castillo and Jaques Cesaire.

3. Glenn Dorsey's arm length

We always talk about how Glenn Dorsey is far too short to play 3-4 DE and should traded to a 4-3 ASAP. While he's not the prototype, his 33.25" arms aren't too shabby, as evidenced by his ability to shed blockers to pick up stops in the run game. While not ideal for 3-4 DE it seems like he's got the physical tools to compete.

College Production as an Indicator of NFL Success

3-4 DEs are relied on heavily for occupying two gaps in run defense. The ability to shed blockers and make plays is not something that can be predicted by 40 time or bench press at the Combine. So I decided to see how some of the best DEs in the league performed in their last year of college. As you'd expect, the big time guys put up big time numbers. Major conference guys reliably put up 50+ tackles and non-major conference players 65+

Tackles Sacks Height Weight
Justin Smith, Missouri 97 11 6'2" 290
Calais Campbell, U of Miami 50 6.5 6'8" 280
J.J. Watt, Wisconsin 62 7 6'6" 292
Darnell Dockett, Florida State 51 3.5 6'4" 297
Muhammad Wilkerson, Temple 70 9.5 6'5" 305
Stephen Bowen, Hofstra 48 (68 as a Jr.) 5.5 6'5" 300
Brett Keisel, BYU 41 2.5 6'5" 279
Cory Redding, Texas 76 8.5 6'5" 270
Ray McDonald, Florida* 39 (54 as So.) 3 6'3" 285
Allen Bailey, U of Miami 45 7 6'4" (34" arm) 285

*Due to a major injury, I used his junior stats

The Chiefs Developmental DEs

Okay, you can see I slipped Allen Bailey into the previous chart to see how he compares. His numbers aren't wildly off from the rest of the group, but are a noticeable tick lower. I do remember a certain promising interview with Georgia Tech OT Austin Barrick.

Who was the toughest player to block (in 2008)?

Barrick: Tyson Jackson is a great player. He went third overall in the draft. Great player, great combination of size, speed. Used his hands very well. Played hard. He was probably the toughest player for me to block.

Barrick: Another one would be Allen Bailey from Miami, just because he’s so unbelievably strong. His arms looked like legs, and it looked like a roadmap of Atlanta, he had so many veins. I’d say those two guys are the toughest, but Tyson Jackson takes the cake, by far.

Clearly TJax has found a way to translate that size and speed into production in run defense, if he can continue to evolve and up his game as a threat to the quarterback (maybe as teams leave him single-teamed due to their new-found focus on stopping Justin Houston) he has a good chance to become an "above average" 3-4 DE and shot a being "elite".

But back to Allen Bailey. I also stumbled across this Big Board from the 2011 Draft, before the bowl games were played. There's an interesting name at the bottom:


Allen Bailey in the NFL

Allen Bailey got on the field last primarily in sub packages. In only 294 snaps he registered 9 pressures, 2 batted passes, 1 sack and 1 QB hit; good for a a +1.4 grade in rush the passer. He also scored a positive grade in run defense (+1.8 ) from pro foot ball focus, and notched a +5.1 grade overall on the year.

Keep in mind, a 0.0 grade from PFF is average whereas a positive grade indicates a above-average performance. Not bad for a rookie with a no offseason and shortened training camp. Allen Bailey certainly looks like he could have been a tremendous value pick. There are a lot of people, including me, who think that he very well might be the sucessor to Glenn Dorsey.

What about that UDFA on the roster?

At 6'7" 272 lbs. Brandon Bair was a very athletic, mobile defensive tackle and goal-line TE for Oregon. Like David Mims, he's a development project; to try to take a player with all of the ideal physical attributes that the Chiefs and transform him into a NFL football player. Bair had respectable stats his junior and senior seasons with the Oregon Ducks:

2010 Tackles 2009 Tackles
47 45
2010 Sacks 2009 Sacks
3 2

While Brandon Bair was pretty quiet in the National Championship game he shined at the 2011 East-West Shrine Bowl:

NFL Rough Draft

Brandon Bair, DT, Oregon- Bair is going to be an ideal fit as a 3-4 defensive end and showed the ability to get down the line and make a tackle outside of the tackle box. He is strong at the point of attack but agile enough to bring down a speedy running back or contain an athletic quarterback.

Bleacher Report's Top 25 Shrine Bowl Performers: No. 24 Brandon Bair

At 6'7" and 275 pounds, he is an impressive frame for a defensive tackle that could comfortably assume another 20 pounds. That size has helped him deflect 12 passes during his career, including eight this year....Overall, he is a solid run defender who does a good job of making plays behind the LOS.

Sports Illustrated:

Bair was another Pac-10 defensive lineman that impressed scouts all week. His monstrous 6-foot-6 frame stood out to everyone in attendance as did his play. Bair was unblockable during the week and displayed skill defending the run as well as rushing the passer. He has the body type which can add bulk and strength in the future and many scouts believe Bair has possibilities at a number of defensive line positions.

After looking at all the developmental guys who've made it at 3-4 DE, I think this kid has a shot, but the first order of business would be to bulk him up a bit. I would think they'd want him somewhere in the 290lbs. range. Will he be able to keep his speed and agility at his new weight? Bottom line: Bair is long-term project the Chiefs have little invested in.

Should the Chiefs draft ANOTHER 3-4 DE?

Personally, I think Dorsey is either trade bait this year or on his way to a 4-3 team when he hits free agency in 2013. Because of Dorsey's free agency situation and the lack of interest in retaining Wallace Gilberry, I think Pioli will be looking to acquire some new DE in the Draft. I just don't know when.

Even if Allen Bailey can step in and replace Dorsey this year or next, the Chiefs might still take advantage of a better-than-usual class of 3-4 DEs to grab a mid-round prospect like Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe. If Crennel isn't comfortable with Bailey (or TJax for that matter) I could see the Chiefs being in the market for a premier 3-4 DE in the 2012 Draft like Michael Brockers or Devon Still.

The 2012 Class of 3-4 Defensive Ends

It seems like this is a good crop of 3-4 DEs. Here are the Top 5 prospects mentioned in connection w/ 3-4 teams.

2011 Tackles 2011 Sacks Height (Arm) Weight Projected Round
Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State 56 5 6'4" (34.5") 298 1
Michael Brockers, LSU 54 2 6'5" (35") 322 1
Devon Still, Penn State 55 4.5 6'5" (33.25") 303 1-2
Kendall Reyes, Uconn 46 4.5 6'4" (34.5") 299 1-2
Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati 70 9.5 6'5" (33.25") 295 2-3

The Blue Chips

Others have gone into great detail and analysis about the blue chip DE prospects and while the two biggest camps are Brockers vs. Still, I'll you draw you're own conclusions.

A Possible Sleeper

In the past, plenty of defensive ends selected in the 3rd round have gone on to be big time NFL players in a 3-4 scheme. One prospect in this year's Draft that intrigues me is Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe. Unlike current AP whipping boy Dontari Poe, Wolfe DID dominate against the inferior level of competition of Conference USA. The monster numbers Wolfe put up are similar to Muhammad Wilkerson's numbers at Temple.

While certainly not as athletic, Wolfe draws comparisons to Houston's J.J. Watt.

One Area of Concern

His college stats would indicate that Wolfe is certainly a good football player. But the Moneyball guys seem to be on to something with this arm-length as indicator of success thing. The current vogue is DE's and OLB's with arms longer than 35". Most sources I've seen consider 32" to be the baseline, 33" is good and 34+" exceptional, so it's not as if he's wildly outgunned.


Will the Chiefs take a 3-4 DE in the draft? I have no idea. Should they? Still no clue. Please feel free to tell me what you think this means in the comments.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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