When the Buffalo Bills hired George Edwards as the team's new defensive coordinator on February 4, it was announced that Edwards would transition the team to a 3-4 defensive alignment. Given Buffalo's alarming lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball, the decision to switch defensive schemes raised some eyebrows - even from folks who supported the move. Buffalo now has a laundry list of needs on both sides of the ball.
It's not a given that the Bills will spend any of their top picks on defenders this coming April; it's still unclear exactly which positional needs the team will target in free agency next month, and given head coach Chan Gailey's offensive background, it's reasonable to assume that the Bills will focus a great deal of their attention on that side of the ball. Thankfully for the Bills and Edwards, this year's draft class is long on talent capable of handling 3-4 roles.
The 2010 NFL Scouting Combine is set to begin tomorrow, so this is a good week (and weekend) to roll out some draft articles. After the jump, you'll find my top ten 3-4 defenders available this year. Please note that the list does not feature any defensive backs - both because the Bills are pretty well stocked in the defensive backfield, and because the biggest differences between 3-4 and 4-3 personnel occur in the front seven.
1. Ndamukong Suh, DE, Nebraska. There's not much to say about Suh that hasn't already been said or seen; he was quite easily the most dominant player in college football last year. He's schematically versatile, meaning that he can play - and play well - in several different defensive schemes, but I think his ideal pro position is as a 3-4 defensive end. He's so disruptive and active that he'll be a nightmare matchup for offenses, in that he'll open things up for pass rushers (as opposed to inside linebackers). He'll be a nightmare at the NFL level, and it'll be a crime against the scouting process if he's not the top overall pick.
2. Rolando McClain, ILB, Alabama. Unlike Suh, McClain is not scheme versatile. He's a very specific type of linebacker, and while he can certainly play in a 3-4, he's most definitely a weak-side defender. He's not a guy that seeks out blockers and intends to destroy them; he'll run around blocks (quite effectively, I might add) and try to pick through the trash before anything else. McClain is going to be an excellent pro linebacker, but he's not a centerpiece; he'll need help to be effective. In Buffalo, he'd make the abilities of Kawika Mitchell and Paul Posluszny immediately redundant, as he's the same type of player (though markedly more talented).
3. Dan Williams, NT, Tennessee. Williams, thanks to an unfortunate photo op from Terrence Cody and a stellar Senior Bowl showing, has quickly asserted himself as the nose tackle of choice this year. Williams had an excellent senior season working with former Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and scouts are not only pleased with the fact that he was a disruptive force, but that he took to pro coaching so seamlessly. He'd underachieved in his first three years at UT, so that will remain a concern heading into April. Williams is capable of playing in a 4-3 or a 3-4, and while a traditional 4-3 role might be his best fit, he's certainly capable of anchoring a 3-4 defense.
4. Sergio Kindle, OLB, Texas. This year's crop of pass-rushing outside linebackers isn't top-heavy, but Kindle - coming off of a superb showing in the BCS National Championship game - is a legitimate first-round prospect. A senior season in which he switched from linebacker to defensive end (where he replaced the departed Brian Orakpo) showed that he wasn't of the same class as his predecessor. Nor is Kindle a natural when it comes to rushing the passer. But his athleticism is excellent, his upside is quite good, and he's got experience doing a lot of different things defensively. He has the look of an every-down outside 'backer at the peak of his abilities.
5. Jared Odrick, DE, Penn State. Odrick is without question one of my favorite prospects this year. Nothing about his athletic talents will stand out; Odrick isn't the flashiest prospect out there. The guy just produces. He's tough, physical, and most importantly, disruptive. Odrick has ideal size to play end in the 3-4, though he certainly fits the mold of an interior pass rusher in a 4-3 as well. Odrick reminds me very much of San Diego DE Luis Castillo, a collegiate DT that A.J. Smith - along with Buddy Nix - drafted near the end of the first round. Odrick has that type of ability. (Side note: if Odrick ends up working for Rex Ryan next year... well, I'll be severely disappointed.)
6. Eric Norwood, OLB, South Carolina. Like Odrick, nothing about Norwood athletically stands out. He lacks elite height and weight measureables for a pass rusher, and 3-4 outside linebacker is really the only NFL position at which he projects well. Luckily for him, he's quite good in that role. His upside might be somewhat limited compared to other prospects, but Norwood has the look of an immediate contributor at one of the game's most critical positions. He looks like a perfect Round 2 pick.
7. Brandon Graham, OLB, Michigan. I'm not completely sold on Graham as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. As a pure prospect, clearly he's one of the more underrated players in this year's draft class (or, rather, he was until he dominated the Senior Bowl). He's also much more athletic than folks give him credit for, and his production speaks for itself. I just think he projects best as a 4-3 defensive end; pay close attention to his speed numbers this week (if he runs), because if he tests well, his stock will soar further, as 3-4 could nudge him up their boards slightly.
8. Arthur Jones, DE, Syracuse. He's flying under the radar at the moment thanks to a season-ending knee injury, but Arthur Jones is an excellent 3-4 defensive end prospect. He proved he can handle and defeat two blockers at the college level, as he faced constant double- and triple-teams as Syracuse's best defender. He's very stout at the point of attack and can disrupt plays in the backfield. Athletically, he's not overly explosive, nor will he shock and awe with heretofore unseen speed and agility. He's just a really solid, dependable football player with solid upside.
9. Terrence Cody, NT, Alabama. If you're in the market for a guy that will take up two blockers whenever he's on the field, Cody's your man. Right now, unfortunately, that's about all he is. The guy is a monster at the point of attack; he's brutally strong, gives maximum effort on every play, and absolutely cannot be moved by interior offensive linemen. But he's not a penetrator, isn't athletic enough to chase effectively, and, in case you're unaware, has pretty severe weight and conditioning issues. He's limited to the 3-4 schematically, as well.
10. Ricky Sapp, OLB, Clemson. For all you Florida fans out there, yes, I nearly put Brandon Spikes here. I didn't for two reasons: Spikes isn't a great fit in the 3-4 (I think he's a true 4-3 Mike 'backer), and I tend to lean towards pass rushers before I lean towards inside linebackers. Sapp is similar to a guy like Williams in that it's been clear all along that he possessed elite athleticism, but never quite lived up to his potential. That was before Sapp put together a really solid senior season. Athletically, he's one of the best in the draft, and his red flags aren't severe. I think he'll quickly assert himself as a solid young pass rusher in his first year in the league.