An interesting trend has begun in the NFL that is a defensive reaction to the pass-happy changes that have been slowly but surely finding their way into Sunday play – the evolution of how the game is shape-shifting.
There was a time when the term ’tweener was viewed as a dirty word. It was never a positive thing. It was a college defensive end who is too small to play the position in the NFL – NFL archeologists might cite Mike Mamula as the original species of where the ’tweener was to take on a new name – edge rusher.
The proliferation of the 3-4 defense has created a change in the role of linebackers where in a 4-3 defense the difference between defensive end and linebacker is pronounced.
Defensive coordinators don’t want a 4-3 defensive end chasing a running back or a tight end down one-on-one with any consistency. It typically doesn’t end well.
In a 3-4 defense, undersized college defensive ends can find a permanent home playing the role of a sack-master linebacker who comes flying in largely unblocked because, once he makes man-on-man contact with an offensive tackle 80 pounds his senior, the rush can be over.
In a 4-3, roles are more clearly and historically defined. Old-school coaches have perfected old-school schemes.
In a 3-4, at least one defensive end would most likely be viewed as a defensive tackle/end combo platter and the guys who are bringing the heat are more often linebackers.
It is the difficulty distinguishing one from another that makes the edge rusher the new species in the NFL – he’s not a classic NFL defensive end or outside linebacker, but he has an elite skill set that defensive innovators can use to their advantage.
Many a draft evaluator said prior to the 2014 draft that, while Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr would be very good in a 4-3 defense, his ideal landing spot would be as a 3-4 edge rushing linebacker. Mike Zimmer strongly disputed that point, because, in his defense, Barr was an ideal fit.
What is changing now in the NFL is how those outside NFL war rooms describe the Artist Formerly Known as ’Tweener. He is now called an edge rusher.
Presumptive first overall pick Myles Garrett is now viewed as an edge rusher.
Presumptive much-later selection T.J. Watt (of the Wisconsin Watts) is now viewed as an edge rusher.
They couldn’t be two more disparate players. Garrett is a hand-on-the-ground defensive end. Watt is an oft-injured lesser brother of an on-track Hall of Famer, where T.J. plays linebacker.
Yet both are now seen as edge rushers, not one as clearly a defensive end and the other clearly a linebacker – regardless of scheme.
The term and the subsequent categorization of players in the view of draft analysts is changing. Two guys who will never have the same responsibility on a football field are being clumped together – not to the extent of the improbable nose tackle/cornerback overlap – but they are players whose roles and responsibilities on a defense are vastly different.
At least we have a name for them.
Next up? Finding a definitive name for the hybrid linebacker/safety that is starting to germinate the game.
Let’s just stick with one confusing, disparate job description at a time for now.