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RISE OF 3-4 DEFENSES IS REDEFINING THE LINEBACKER POSITION

This is the sixth in a seven-part series previewing the NFL draft. Today's installment looks at linebackers.

Tweener is not usually a term of endearment for prospects entering the NFL draft.

This year, however, being a player caught between positions might not be such a bad thing.

Six of the top 13 teams picking in the first round will be using the 3-4 defense in 2005. So undersized edge rushers who would be too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 alignment could see their value increase.

"I think there are some 3-4 teams that are going to be excited about a group of undersized defensive ends . . . that can come in and rush and play different positions," Tennessee General Manager Floyd Reese said.

The 3-4 defense was played last year by five teams -- New England, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Oakland and Houston. This year Miami, Cleveland, Minnesota and Dallas are converting to it.

As a result the stock has risen for some defensive ends who can both rush and drop into coverage, such as Maryland's Shawne Merriman, Georgia's David Pollack and Troy State's Demarcus Ware. Ditto for Virginia linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who looks like a great fit as a 3-4 rusher.

There always has been a debate among scouts about the talent pool for the 3-4 vs. the 4-3. It's hard to find great defensive ends for the 4-3 who can be elite pass rushers but who also can hold up against the run. The college ranks are filled with undersized 4-3 defensive ends, but very few are athletic enough to drop into pass coverage as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 NFL defense.

"It's harder to find the great rush defensive end in the 4-3, and now maybe you're better off trying to create pressure with a combination of blitzes," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "I don't know. You have more flexibility (with the 3-4)."

"It's harder to play in the 3-4," counters Atlanta coach Jim Mora Jr. "You occupy more space as you move backward (as a linebacker). It's easier to move forward. You have to have movement skills and awareness (as an NFL linebacker). It's hard to find outside linebackers in the 3-4. They're projections."

"To make the transition from defensive end normally takes a couple of years before they feel comfortable moving to 3-4 outside linebacker," Texans coach Dom Capers said.

"We have drills at the scouting combine here where people work at an alternate position," Texans General Manager Charley Casserly said. "We had 20 guys doing it this year because of the 3-4 defense. Only two colleges in the country, Virginia and Maryland, play the 3-4. All those outside linebackers are projections. Those projections are not easy to get right."

The top linebacker is not a projection. Texas' Derrick Johnson is a traditional weak-side backer in the mold of Tampa's Derrick Brooks. He's the fastest top linebacker candidate with a time of 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He had nine career interceptions and nine forced fumbles as a senior.

Ware was a 6-foot-4, 251-pound defensive end at Troy State. But he's projected to shift to outside linebacker, and could be the best speed rusher in the draft. He runs a 4.56 40-yard dash.

The next two best linebacker prospects also probably fit the traditional weak-side position. Georgia's Thomas Davis starred at safety in college, but his slow 40 time probably prompts a position shift in the pros. Tennessee's Kevin Burnett does not have Johnson's ability but he's productive and smart.

Blackstock has an edge on most rush linebacker candidates because he played it in Virginia's 3-4 defense under Al Groh, former head coach of the Jets.

Blackstock and Burnett should be taken by the early second round. A full round may go by before another outside backer is taken.

Florida's Channing Crowder tops the inside backer class, followed by Nebraska's Barrett Ruud. They both will be taken by the middle of the second round.

Next: Defensive backs.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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