Finding The Right Hybrid

Of four hybrid candidates for the Steelers' front seven, Jim Wexell writes about the one who would most surprise.

The good news out of the NFL owners meetings yesterday is that the announced seventh-round compensatory pick for the Steelers in this draft has been changed to a sixth-rounder.

But perhaps the more interesting news came from Mike Tomlin, who further defined his defensive alignment for the coming season.

“When you talk about base defense 4-3 and 3-4," he told the Trib's Mark Kaboly, "if you look at the most critical plays in our game, we're not in base defense."

Which makes the defense used for "most critical plays" Tomlin's more important alignment, or "base."

Tomlin also seems to be saying that he'll continue his search for players to fit two "base defenses," players we'll continue to call hybrids.

Of course, teams can have only 53 players, so Tomlin can't keep a full set of backups for both his run-stopping and pass-downs alignments. He needs such hybrids to fulfill a couple, if not more, roles.

To properly zero in on a target for the front seven and an improved pass rush -- the team's most dire need -- let's break down the depth chart by alignment.

Here's my 3-4:

ROLB -- Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats.

RDE -- Stephon Tuitt, Cam Thomas.

NT -- Steve McLendon, Daniel McCullers, (Thomas).

LDE -- Cameron Heyward, (Thomas).

LOLB -- James Harrison (Moats).

And my 4-3:

RDE -- Harrison, Jones.

RDT -- Heyward, McLendon, McCullers.

LDT -- Tuitt, Thomas.

LDE -- Moats (Jones).

Roster needs: reserve LOLB in 3-4; reserve LDE in 4-3.

What must improve: Pass rush, both inside and out; depth for Tuitt and Heyward.

Is there one player who can do all of that?

Well, in my opinion there are four first-round candidates:

* Alvin Dupree would provide better pass coverage in the 3-4 while giving them bulk as a DE in the 4-3.

* Eli Harold might do both jobs better when he grows into his body, but is thus more of a projection.

* Owamagbe Odighizuwa would provide some, albeit minimal, coverage ability as an OLB, but more power at the point of attack as a DE in the 4-3. He also has the ability to spell Tuitt or Heyward inside in the 4-3.

* The fourth player might surprise Steelers fans because he's considered a true, blue 4-3 defensive end, but Preston Smith of Mississippi State might be the most versatile front-seven hybrid available.

"This year we had a lot of different looks in the defensive scheme," Smith told combine reporters. "They had me standing up, hand in the dirt, inside, outside ... 5- technique in the 3-4, outside linebacker 3-4, defensive end 4-3. ... in sub-packages I went to nose guard and played zero shade." Of course, Smith has no preference, just "whichever makes the most plays."

It's just a matter of kicking somebody's rear end, isn't it?

"Yeah, that's all it is," Smith said.

Smith was a rotational player his first two years at State and broke out his senior year with 15 tackles for loss, nine sacks and two interceptions -- one he returned for a touchdown after dropping 20 yards into coverage and leaping to reach out and make a one-handed catch. He showed off his linebacker skills at his pro day, of which draft analyst Tony Pauline wrote: "Teams came away very impressed with the versatility Preston Smith displayed. He was quick and fast off the edge in defensive line drills and also fluid in linebacker drills."

Teams were also impressed with Smith's combine. After checking in at 6-4.7, 271 with 34-inch arms and 10 5/8-inch hands, Smith ran a 4.74 40 with a 1.63 split. He bench-repped 24 times, jumped 34 inches vertically and 10-1 horizontally, and had impressive agility times of 4.28 in the short shuttle and 7.07 in the three-cone.

Having the ability to play -- and play effectively -- from nose to outside linebacker, and then putting up those numbers at that size, would seem to add up to first-round ability, wouldn't it?

Some say so, but not NFL.com's Lance Zierlein.

"Scouts say he 'sees it' but doesn't have the quick-twitch athleticism to react quickly enough to make plays," Zierlein wrote. "Smith has been a solid, rotational defensive end for Mississippi State, but nothing too special. When studying tape long enough, you see traits and potential. With his long arms, plus hands and ability to play the run, Smith could be an interesting prospect inside or in a hybrid 3-4 front. As a 4-3 defensive end, he lacks the twitch to be an impact player."

Well, at least there's the word "hybrid," if that's what the Steelers truly are looking for.

With his size, speed and versatility, Smith could develop into a Julius Peppers type, but much cheaper. At 6-7, 283 pounds, Peppers was the second pick of the 2002 draft. He has the same wingspan as Smith, 10-inch hands, and ran a similar 40 (4.68). Peppers is also Smith's favorite player.

"Teams tell me they see me as a hybrid defensive end-to-outside linebacker type fit. They feel I can stand up on first and second down and put my hand in the dirt on third down and rush the quarterback," Smith said. "I see Julius Peppers a lot with the new system playing for the Packers. He does that a lot. He'll stand up on first and second down and on third down he'll put his hand in the dirt a majority of the time."

Smith has size, speed, versatility and also improving production. He was named first-team All-SEC as a senior and made five tackles with a sack in the Senior Bowl.

And he also has a sense of humor. After saying that "versatility" was his primary asset, Smith was asked to name his primary weakness. He pondered the question for a minute before answering.

"Man to man coverage. I can't guard no slot receiver yet," he said with a smile. "But you put me on the tight end, I can guard him."


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