Draft Thoughts for 2007This is a football post and not a military manpower post. The two teams that I follow fairly intensely, the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-4 defensive teams that rely on their outside linebackers to provide their effective passrush. The inside linebackers are their primary run stoppers. Both teams' linebacker corps look like they could be infused with youth next year. The Steelers seem to be losing their pass rush as Joey Porter's quickness and power has been successfully negated by the better offensive teams this year, even as he is still able to dominate weak competition. Their inside backers of Farrior and Foote seem to be holding up better, but the depth behind them is extremely thin.
The Patriots have elected to remain very thin in their linebacking corps as they carried only five linebackers for four positions that have demonstrated a capability to effectively play. Since Junior Seau has been injured and lost for the season, there is no effective depth at this position. The Patriots have managed to cope by moving Mike Vrabel to the inside and moving their fifth reliable linebacker, Tully Banta Cain to a fulltime starting position with the simplest set of responsibilities. Beyond that the linebacker depth is pretty thin as it is composed of undersized special teamers and low talent first contract players.
The Patriots' system places the most stress on the inside linebackers, as they are asked to do the most. The right outside linebacker has the easiest job as that position is mostly tasked with the outside pass rush and setting the edge against the run. The left outside linebacker position has more coverage responsibilities against backs and tight ends than the ROLB. The Steeler's system and style place fewer demands on their linebackers, but the change is marginal.
Both teams need at least one high quality linebacker either through free agency or the draft. There does not seem to be a signifcant number of starting quality free agent veterans floating around or scheduled to be free agents this March. The draft is the probable source for at least one impact linebacker. Given the systems that both teams run, and given both coaching staff's preferences to utilize veterans in complex positions, the easiest position to fill is the pass rushing outside linebacker position.
The ideal 3-4 passrushing linebacker is not a collegiate linebacker. The overwhelming majority of collegiate linebackers are too small to fulfill the run responsibilities of a 3-4 linebacker, and the few that are big enough are usually playing in the middle where they tend to be too slow to be effective edge rushers. The few who are big enough and fast enough to both set the edge and speed rush against elite left tackles tend to get drafted in the first ten picks as these guys are atheletic freaks. Instead the ideal 3-4 passrushing linebacker is an undersized defensive end who is used to setting the edge against the run already, and has the demonstrated quickness to beat good tackles.
Eight years ago when the Steelers were looking for an outside linebacker, they had their choice of their preferred players, as almost no one else was playing the 3-4. This allowed the Steelers to gain great value as they could draft their most highly rated passrushers in the second, third or fourth round, while other teams if they wanted to grab the best passrusher on their board would have to get into the top ten picks of the draft. That has changed. At least eight teams play the 3-4, and everyone is looking for the best passrushers, even though these passrushers in the 3-4 tend to be conversion projects.
With the glut of teams playing the 3-4, including the Patriots and Steelers, and looking for elite passrushers who can be trained to become complete players by the end of their rookie contracts, combined with the effects of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that places time limits on rookie contracts [ 6 years max for picks #1-16, 5 years max for picks #17-32, 4 years max, everyone else], should we expect to see a marginal push up for prospective 3-4 passrushing linebackers?
Converting a player who has been a down defensive lineman to a standing linebacker takes time in order to make them a complete player. The contract limits severely constrain the value of conversion project unless a team is guaranteed to be able to keep the player for as long as possible. So I would expect to see a flurry of linebackers taken before pick #17, and then another cluster of conversion projects take in the late 20s, and then a dearth of conversion project linebackers until the end of the second round or start of the third round where the fiscal costs are much lower so the expected value proposition comes back into the teams' favor. Therefore I expect the Steelers to seriously look at a conversion project linebacker at aroung pick #12, and the Patriots to do the same with the later of their two first round picks.
Steelers, Patriots, NFL Draft