Packers Draft Defenders with 3-4 Experience
By Dan Dahlke
Typically, when the Green Bay Packers draft former college defensive standouts to help bolster their front seven, there’s a significant adjustment period before these prospects feel comfortable in the Packers system.
While all rookies take some time to get used to life in the NFL, regardless of scheme, rookie defensive linemen and linebackers have the added task of learning a new position or role in the Packers 3-4 defense.
Whereas roughly half of NFL teams now use a 3-4 front, a majority of college programs still run the traditional 4-3 defense. It’s become the norm in Green Bay to ask defensive rookies to learn a new role, position, or even technique as they transfer to a 3-4 scheme.
College defensive ends learn to rush the passer from a two-point stance and drop in coverage as outside linebackers. Defensive tackles line up over center or make the switch to defensive end and two-gap as five-technique defensive linemen. 4-3 outside linebackers make the switch to inside and learn to take on guards and hold the point of attack or attack the A-gap.
Significant changes that can add to the already heavy workload and learning curve so many rookies face in the NFL. Some rookies handle this better than others when they reach training camp.
As a former college defensive end, Clay Matthews possessed the athleticism and motor to make the transition smoothly and see the field in his first year. However, other players, like Nick Perry, Mike Neal, or Mike Daniels, took time to find a role on defense.
The jury is still out on whether or not Perry is really best suited at outside linebacker instead of a 4-3 defensive end. Coming in as a 4-3 defensive tackle, it took Neal several years to finally make an impact on defense after he didn’t quite fit as a 3-4 defensive linemen and had to shed weight and move to edge rusher.
Daniels is one of the recent success stories in this transformation. By his second year, he proved to be an effective interior rusher and base defensive end, despite not being an ideal fit in a 3-4 front.
However, also consider the recent Packers draft picks that struggled to make this scheme change. 2012 second-rounder Jerel Worthy and 2014 third-rounder Khyri Thornton failed miserably as 3-4 defensive ends and are already off the roster.
Third-year linebacker Carl Bradford also couldn’t make the switch from college defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, and is now trying to make the roster as an inside linebacker. A similar theme rang true with recently released linebacker Nate Palmer.
Point being, there’s no guarantee defensive rookies can make the switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 system. A risk NFL teams are forced to take with their draft picks.
However, the Green Bay Packers 2016 draft class might be the exception.
In fact, more than any previous draft in recent memory, the Packers targeted defensive prospects with a significant amount of 3-4 experience. Whether this was intentional or coincidence, it could go a long way in helping the Packers rookies bell the learning curve and develop into key contributors in their first year in Dom Capers’ defense.
Packers first-round selection, Kenny Clark, was a three-year starter at nose tackle in UCLA’s 3-4 front–a fire blitz scheme very similar to the one Green Bay runs.
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Clark’s extensive experience lining up over center should help ease his transition when the Packers ask him to consistently hold the point of attack against double teams and control the middle of the line of scrimmage.
Freeing up linebackers to swarm to the ball and make plays is nothing new to Clark, whereas a vast majority of college defensive tackles coming into camp with 4-3 experience are more used to a disrupt-and-penetrate role on defense.
Now, there’s no guarantee any NFL rookie will make an immediate impact, but at least for Clark’s sake, the Packers will be asking the 6-foot-3, 314-pound rookie to perform the same duties he so successfully showed on the field for the Bruins in three productive seasons.
Similarly, rookie inside linebacker Blake Martinez also brings to the table extensive 3-4 experience having played at Stanford.
Even though the Cardinals ran a 3-4 base, a vast majority of the time they spent in nickel or dime defense to match up better against the spread offenses so frequently used in the Pac-12. Martinez made a name for himself as a nickel and dime linebacker, leading the division in tackles (141) and grading out as one of the top inside backers in coverage in the FBS in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
Fortunately for Martinez, the Packers also use nickel around 60 percent of their snaps, giving him a leg up on the other linebackers coming in to compete with him for playing time. In fact, Martinez’s experience dropping in coverage and playing against the spread offense is something SEC or Big Ten linebackers may not be as accustomed to.
He could have the inside track to be the Packers’ lone dime linebacker.
Martinez’s 3-4 experience may also quicken the adjustment to taking on guards and holding the point of attack against the run, which is an element of the game so many 4-3 college linebackers struggle to get used to in a 3-4 front in the NFL.
Even though defensive linemen and inside linebackers have to make adjustments to their game, the biggest transformation definitely occurs with edge rushers. Going from playing from a three-point stance as a defensive end in college to rushing upright as an outside linebacker is a switch many players make once they arrive in the NFL, but there’s also risk involved in this transformation.
Not every player can make the change to 3-4 outside linebacker. Often, it’s not even rushing the passer from a different stance that hinders their progress, but dropping in coverage can be the Achilles heel of so many rush backers.
Four seasons in and Perry still struggles with this aspect of the position, which can limit teams schematically. In the past, Neal, Erik Walden, Aaron Kampman, and Frank Zombo also didn’t do well in this regard.
This is also an aspect of the game returnee Jayrone Elliott will have to get used to and undrafted free agent Reggie Gilbert will have to learn from scratch after playing defensive end at Arizona.
However, Kyler Fackrell won’t face this same level of adjustment. Lined up primarily as an outside rush backer at Utah State, Fackrell frequently dropped in coverage and held up admirably in this aspect of the game. He routinely showed an ability to backpedal and move well laterally, while making plays out in space.
The fact Fackrell can rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, and drop in coverage should make his move to outside linebacker in the Packers defense a natural one.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Fackrell, or any rookie for that matter, will instantly have success on the field. They still need to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, learn a new playbook, and get used to facing elite competition each and every week.
However, at least for Fackrell, Martinez, and Clark they also don’t have to learn new positions or defensive schemes on top of everything else.
Imagine the challenges rookies face in their first year, and then add the complication of a former college defensive end having to learn to drop in space, play in coverage, and rush from a two-point stance.
Or, asking a defensive tackle to not just disrupt and penetrate, but to also line directly over an offensive lineman and hold the point of attack, while being responsible for two gaps against the run.
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For Fackrell and Clark, they bring experience in these areas. They’re familiar with all of the responsibilities of their position, as well is Martinez, which may allow them to see the field sooner as rookies.
After all, the Packers may just very well need them to contribute immediately.