The Buffalo Bills’ conversion to a 4-3 defense this year offers some slight advantages in the draft for the team’s talent selectors, given the defensive talent already in the organization.
Edge rushers and linebackers are little easier to find for the 4-3 than the 3-4. That doesn’t mean the 4-3 is better. Great players win more than great schemes. Of the last six Super Bowl winners, three ran the 4-3 and three ran the 3-4.
But the 4-3 can accommodate a defensive end anywhere from 240 pounds to 280 or 290. Aaron Schobel weighed about 245 during part of his Bills career. Ideally the left defensive end in the 4-3 is a little heavier than the right defensive end.
The prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker is 6-foot-3 or 6-4 and weighs 260 pounds. Ideally, that linebacker could be dropped into coverage anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the time. The 4-3 end doesn’t need any coverage ability.
“You have a broader range to choose from in the 4-3,” agreed Bills general manager Doug Whaley. “Three-four outside linebackers are very particular creatures.”
The Bills do not have to make much of an overhaul in the defensive switch under coordinator Jim Schwartz. Defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Williams have played most of their careers in the 4-3. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is perfect for the nose position, next to Kyle Williams, in the 4-3. Jerry Hughes, who weighs 254, is the edge rusher from the left side.
“Going back and forth is tough,” Whaley acknowledged of changing schemes. “But I think Schwartzy has the flexibility that he can do certain things with the guys we have. And it’s great for us because it opens up more options as a scout.”
The Bills could use some more depth at defensive end, and it’s a position they could target in early part of the draft. They could use some depth at linebacker. But the majority of their defensive pieces are in place.
“The conversion for your defense will not be as hard as most teams,” said Pat Kirwan, NFL.com analyst and former Jets personnel chief. “Dareus will be the 1-technique, the shade nose, and he will love the chance to be a one-gap penetrator. Kyle Williams will be the 3-tech, shaded on the guard, and expected to penetrate. His sacks last year tell you he can do the job. Mario Williams is a natural end, right or left, so no problem there.”
“Getting an undersized pass rusher like Dee Ford or Demarcus Lawrence in the second round would give them the perfect four guys,” Kirwan said. “Other guys to consider because Alan Branch is a question include Jackson Jeffcoat, Kareem Martin and Scott Crichton.”
Ford is a 244-pounder from Auburn. Lawrence is a 250-pound edge rusher from Boise State.
Bill Polian, former Bills general manager and current ESPN analyst, thinks any draft advantage offered by a specific scheme is probably negligible, depending on the scheme.
“It depends on the kind of 4-3 and the kind of 3-4,” Polian said. “If you’re an athletic 3-4 like Wade Phillips was, you can play with a slightly less heavy and more athletic right defensive end.”
“If you’re talking about a Tampa 2 defense, sure you can play with a 245- or 250-pound defensive ends. I think it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
As for drafting linebackers, there’s a little more position flexibility in the 4-3 scheme.
“The 3-4 linebackers aren’t as interchangeable as 4-3 linebackers, so it’s a little easier position across the board to fill in the 4-3,” Whaley said.
“You have to get specific type of abilities as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 and the outside. They’re not totally different but there’s a lot of difference. One guy I can think of in the 3-4 is Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons. He started outside and moved inside. But that’s rare. You don’t want to bank on finding those guys.”