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COMBINE NOTEBOOK: Hybrid Defensive Ends Getting Long Looks; Other Notes

Posted Feb 24, 2014

Strong pass rushers are making more noise at this year’s Combine.

INDIANAPOLIS – Versatility at all positions is becoming more of the norm in the National Football League, but along the defensive line there continues to be a pressing need for elite pass rushers.

New York Giants Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor was an anomaly when he was the second overall pick of the 1981 NFL Draft, having made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker. He still had the size of a defensive end at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds but played in an era when physical running attacks were more prevalent, so his speed and quickness were more effective when lining up a yard off the ball.

Now players with his body type like Miami Dolphins defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon are being highly sought in an attempt to counter what has become a true passing league. Seasons like the one future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning had in 2013 are becoming more frequent, as his NFL record 5,477 yards marked the seventh time since 2008 that the 5,000-yard plateau was passed. Prior to that it only happened once back in 1984 when Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino threw for 5,084 yards and the college prospects auditioning this week at the NFL Scouting Combine know what skills they need to highlight in their interviews.

“I feel like I am one of the best pass rushers in this draft and that’s what the NFL needs right now,” Auburn’s Dee Ford said. “Being able to get to the quarterback consistently is what separates me and I think that’s hard to do. I was one of the few who actually did it.”

Ford might be considered a little undersized at 6-2, 252, but he’s the same height as Vernon, who led Miami with 11.5 sacks last season, and actually two pounds heavier than Wake, a three-time Pro Bowler. He finished with 8.5 sacks for the Tigers in the regular season and SEC Championship Game and added two more on Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston in the BCS National Championship against Florida State.

Of course Ford is well aware of the fact that there is another prospect from the SEC with a much higher profile being looked at closely in Indianapolis – South Carolina’s Jadaveon Clowney. Clowney came into the Combine as the potential first overall pick in the eyes of many because of his freakish size at 6-5, 266 and the memories of “The Hit” he put on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.

The sight of him blasting Smith and jarring the ball and Smith’s helmet loose at the same time has been replayed endlessly and he recalls people expecting him to do ridiculous things like sack the quarterback 10 times in a game after that blew up. He doesn’t care whether he’s placed at linebacker or defensive end in the NFL because he is that confident in his abilities.

“It doesn’t matter to me, hand in the dirt, hand down,” Clowney said. “The scheme I played in at South Carolina, my hand was always down, but I believe I can play standing up also. My speed of course (is his biggest strength). I’m a fast guy, quick and I move well. I am pretty strong also, I just need to work on my pad leverage.”

Clowney’s unofficial time in the 40-yard dash when he ran it this morning was a blazing 4.47 seconds, which is faster than the majority of the wide receivers and running backs that ran on Sunday.

Two more prospects garnering lots of attention for different reasons are UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Barr will be compared more often to Clowney because of his size (6-5, 255) and is considered to be a little more of a raw talent but armed with all of the intangibles NFL teams are looking for in a speedy and long defensive end.

“I feel comfortable at this weight, but if a team would ask me to put on weight and put my hand on the ground I’m doing that,” said Barr, who began his college career at running back. “Shedding blocks, defending the run and using my hands, I think those things are still new to me, things I’m still working on. If I continue to work on it, I think I’ll be able to perfect those.”

As for Sam, nobody can downplay the season he had for the Tigers in which he was named co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC. He got to the quarterback 11.5 times and helped spark a run by his team that was the best in school history with a 12-2 record and a win over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

Sam created the biggest buzz prior to the Combine when he announced that he was gay and would become the first openly gay player in the NFL if he’s drafted or signed as a free agent. He acquitted himself very well in front of the cameras during his circus of a press conference, but preferred to answer questions about him being labeled a “tweener” when it comes to his future as a linebacker or a defensive end rather than about his sexual orientation.

“I’m a pass rusher. If you put me in a situation to get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback,” Sam said. “Whoever coaches or GMs, this league is a passing league. I’d like to believe in myself as a good pass rusher. I can drop back in coverage as well. My specialty is rushing the passer.”

And if that’s the same conclusion drawn by NFL evaluators, he and the others could be the next in the line of hybrid defensive ends making an impact in the league.

COMBINE TIDBITS

Typically when the official 40-yard dash times are posted at the Combine an hour or more after the actual run, the result is slower than the unofficial time. That was not the case Sunday with Kent State running back Dri Archer, who at 4.26 seconds ended up two-hundredths of a second closer to Chris Johnson’s record of 4.24 set in 2008 than originally thought. Archer’s unofficial time was a 4.28, so when it dropped down that prompted Johnson to tweet how nervous he had gotten. … In the case of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, his time went from an impressive 4.56 to a 4.68, which knocked him from the top spot at his position down to fourth. … The defensive linemen and linebackers took their turn on the field today, with everything wrapping up tomorrow with the defensive backs.

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