Jene Bramel: Does the Reese’s Senior Bowl Put Edge Rushers In Position to Succeed?

Kyle Van Noy epitomizes the glut of rushers that aren't an easy fit for the current specifications of 4-3 defenses seen at the Senior Bowl. Photo by Ken Lund.
Kyle Van Noy epitomizes the glut of rushers that aren’t an easy fit for the current specifications of 4-3 defenses seen at the Senior Bowl. Photo by Ken Lund.

Players may be more scheme diverse than ever before, but short practice schedules and a traditional mindset may limit their ability to display their true upside at the Senior Bowl.

By Jene Bramel

The NFL evolves quickly. Decades ago, Jimmy Johnson’s preference for speed first and size second generated a new wave of defenders. Defensive ends looked like linebackers. Outside linebackers looked like safeties. Some defensive coordinators adapted immediately. So, too, eventually did old school defensive coordinators and fans, who began recognizing that 255 pound defensive ends and 230 pound inside linebackers weren’t liabilities in a base defensive package.

A similar transition started some years ago as many of the league’s best defensive minds began using a 1-gap, attacking 3-4 and hybrid fronts. Then, the default term for a pass rusher considered too slight to hold up as a down defensive lineman but too big to be successful in coverage was “tweener.” It was rare to find a “tweener” who was a dominating pass rusher from both two and three point stances and could also handle stand up linebacker responsibilities. That skill set is much more common today. Even those that do struggle to handle more traditional linebacker responsibilities are often adept at rushing the passer from either stance.

That’s made the term “tweener” obsolete. These players are now scheme diverse. They deserve to be called what they are – edge rushers – without forcing them into a given base defensive scheme. And in today’s NFL, those players are now prized commodities.

Here at the Senior Bowl, however, these players aren’t treated as such. Even worse, when too many are invited to the game, some are forced into a more traditional, base 4-3 strong side linebacker role. It may not necessarily hurt their draft stock, but it isn’t putting them in a position to succeed.

It wasn’t a major issue in recent years, as there was enough all-around outside linebacker talent in the ranks that each squad had a well-rounded group of defensive end and outside linebackers. The coaching staffs also did an admirable job of giving players like Courtney Upshaw, Cam Johnson, Sio Moore, Melvin Ingram, Ty Powell, Shea McClellin and others opportunity in multiple situations over the past two seasons. This year’s rosters seem more unbalanced, however. Many of the linebacker prospects – and some defensive end prospects – may not see many snaps in the roles they may be best suited for on Sundays.

The North squad is using Trent Murphy exclusively at defensive end. That’s likely a good decision. But Michael Sam and Marcus Smith would seem better fits in an edge rushing role than the strong side linebacker role they’re being used in currently. In Monday’s North practice, Sam and Smith saw just three pass rushing reps each in one-on-one drills and zero reps in team drills. Teams want to see both players in a new role, but they should be given an opportunity to show how their best skill holds up against Senior Bowl competition.

It’s even worse on the South roster, where there’s not a prototype middle linebacker on the roster. Instead, it’s a mix of flow-and-chase 4-3 outside linebacker talents and edge rushing prospects. That mix led to the Jacksonville coaching staff using Jerry Attaochu at inside linebacker for a handful of reps today, according to those who watched the South practice on Monday.

It’s early in the week and there are lots of practice reps yet to be taken. Tomorrow could be the day the coaches have planned to work Marcus Smith in heavily as a weak side end or use Attaochu exclusively in an edge rushing role. We could see a heavier installation of 4-3 Under concepts than in past seasons as the week progresses.

More likely, however, the limited practice time will prevent the coaching staffs from deviating from the early week plans. Unfortunately, that means the “tweeners” of the Senior Bowl experience may not get a chance to see how their best skill stacks up against elite college competition.

Under Phil Savage, the Senior Bowl has been more progressive and NFL-friendly over the past two seasons. It’s time to continue the trend on the field and find new ways to highlight this critical group of players.

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