NFL offenses continue to stretch the binding of their playbooks. Many offenses have gone to spread concepts as their base alignment, using multiple receivers on every down. Those receiving options aren’t necessarily traditional wideouts. The New England Patriots have generated match up nightmares over the past two seasons by huddling with two tight ends and/or a running back that could line up anywhere in the formation.
To adjust, many teams have chosen to become multiple with their defensive playbooks. Defenders who can match up well regardless of how an offense breaks the huddle have quickly become hot commodities. A player who can rush the passer effectively from a two or three point stance but also handle underneath zone responsibilities or a safety who can drop down and cover a tight end or receiver in the slot or a defensive lineman that can play multiple roles across the line will draw attention from more teams and see their draft stock rise accordingly.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock often preaches the value of scheme versatility. Here are a few guys that caught my eye as potential scheme-diverse players during this week’s practices:
DT/DE Billy Winn and Kendall Reyes
Winn and Reyes aren’t likely to be as dynamically talented as J.J. Watt or Marcell Dareus, but they should bring to a defense what underrated talents like Ray McDonald has to San Francisco or LaMarr Houston has to Oakland: an ability to play 3-4 DE, 4-3 LDE or 4-3 DT equally effectively. Winn is a little more explosive than Reyes, but both anchor well outside and disrupt plays inside. Talents like Winn and Reyes afford defensive coordinators to have an edge rushing specialist on the roster that only plays in certain passing situations. Don’t be surprised to see Winn drafted at the end of the first round, which follows a trend that has seen Ziggy Hood, Jared Odrick, Muhammad Wilkerson and Cameron Heyward sneak into the draft on day one in recent years.
OLB/DE Shea McClellin
Tweeners that can play either 4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB are common. But the term tweener implies a pass rushing prospect, not necessarily a player who can drop into coverage well enough to have potential value as a 4-3 SLB or 3-4 LOLB. Cam Johnson, Melvin Ingram, Courtney Upshaw and Vinny Curry are all tweeners in that traditional sense but aren’t guys that will be asked to do something other than rush the passer for more than a token snap here or there. A solid pass rushing prospect, McClellin backed up glimpses of all-around linebacker play on tape by flashing the ability to turn and run with backs and tight ends during practice this week. Such versatility can push an otherwise one-dimensional pass rushing prospect from the 5th or 6th round into the 3rd.
S Markelle Martin
Spread formations force teams to find five, six or even seven defenders that can cover effectively. A physical slot corner or a safety that can come down over a slot receiver or tight end and has the instincts and range to handle a two deep responsibility has become a de facto 12th starter for an NFL defense. Martin probably will never rise to the level of an Earl Thomas or Eric Weddle, but he was arguably the most consistent safety prospect in coverage drills this week. Players with Martin’s talent in run support or coverage alone often last well into the third day of the draft. The combination of skills could push Martin into consideration late in the second or early in the third round.
It will be very interesting to see if a team selects any of these players a round or more sooner than their raw talent suggests because of the flexibility they’ll bring to a roster on gameday.