Defensive Scheme Changes: Falcons, Saints, Browns, Eagles, Cowboys

4-3 to 3-4

Atlanta Falcons

This one isn’t confirmed, but Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a 3-4 guy. He did a great job in his first season with the Falcons, coaching them to a top-5 scoring defense, despite having to run a 4-3, because he wisely realized they didn’t have the personnel for an immediate switch to a 3-4. Still, you have to figure he’s going to want to go to a 3-4 eventually and going into his 2nd year with the team, there are rumors, though nothing confirmed, that he may be taking them to a 3-4 base this season. They already ran a lot of 3-3 looks last year, as they frequently used sub packages.

If there were to go to a 3 man line full time in 2013, it would resemble the one from their 3-3 front. Jonathan Babineaux would be a 3-4 defensive end and Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, or Vance Walker could play the other 3-4 end spot, though Peters was terrible last year and Walker is a free agent. Either way, they do need a true nose tackle, something this roster lacks. There’s a reason they ranked 29th against the run in 2013. If he’s even re-signed, Walker is their biggest tackle on the roster at about 305, which isn’t going to cut it.

Going to the linebacking corps, defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann would move to the 3-4 outside linebacker spot. Whether or not they will fit the new position remains to be seen, but either way, they need help at the position. Abraham turns 35 in May, while Biermann is a marginal and inconsistent starter, and their depth is suspect at best. Outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas would move inside to middle linebacker, though Nicholas should just be a base package run stuffer and someone else should come in for him in sub packages. Akeem Dent is a candidate, but it also may be someone not currently on their roster.

New Orleans Saints

After ranking among the worst in the NFL in every single defensive category, including 31st in opponent’s scoring, the Saints have rightfully fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. They apparently want to do anything they can to change things up as they are reportedly interested in hiring a defensive coordinator with a 3-4 background to run that scheme in New Orleans. As would have been the case if they had stayed in a 4-3, they still need more talent upfront.

Cameron Jordan might benefit the most from the scheme change, as the collegiate 3-4 end had been struggling as a 4-3 end in the NFL. Opposite him, however, they have nothing and someone like Sheldon Richardson will be an option at 15th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. At nose tackle, expect Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks to hold down the fort. Both could also play end as well, I suppose, but that will still be a need.

Like 3-4 defensive end, rush linebacker is now a huge need. Will Smith will almost definitely be cut. Not only is he overpaid and not very good anymore, but he’s a terrible fit for a 3-4. That leaves the Saints with nickel rushers Martez Wilson and Junior Galette at the position. They’ll bring someone else in. Someone like Dion Jordan or Ezekiel Ansah will also be an option at 15th overall. Expect them to take a 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker, in either order, with their first 2 picks of the 2013 NFL Draft. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, meanwhile, are obvious fits at middle linebacker and should be able to have bounce back years in the new scheme. Jonathan Vilma probably would have been cut either way, but this pretty much seals the deal.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns made the opposite transition a few years ago, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 after the 2010 season, with Pat Shurmur coming in. That should help ease the transition. However, they do have a bunch of new front 7 players. Jabaal Sheard is their best pass rusher and I don’t think he’ll have much of an issue moving from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker. They’ll need a complement for him, opposite him, but they would have needed another pass rusher regardless. Expect them to target rush linebackers at #6 overall.

The reason they need another pass rush is because Juqua Parker is a 35 year old free agent this off-season. He split snaps opposite Sheard last year with Frostee Rucker and frankly they weren’t very good either. Rucker, however, may be a better fit as a 3-4 end. Between him, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Phil Taylor, and Ahytba Rubin, they should be set on the defensive line. That’s five guys who can play significant snaps, including two, Rubin and Taylor, who have the size to play on the nose.

At inside linebacker, D’Qwell Jackson will remain, as he did the last time they used a 3-4. Either Craig Robertson, Kaluka Maiava, or James-Michael Johnson will play next to him. Chris Gocong is another candidate, provided he isn’t cut, owed 4.45 million in 2013, coming off an Achilles tear that ended his 2012 season. Rush linebacker is really their only need area up front, even for depth purposes. They look pretty set at all other positions, but rush linebacker is probably the most important one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Like the Saints, the Eagles have not formally hired a defensive coordinator, but new Head Coach Chip Kelly is a believer in the 3-4 scheme and they are expected to hire a 3-4 defensive coordinator, likely San Francisco defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. They will need to wait until after the Super Bowl to do so, but that’s probably the reason why they have yet to hire anyone.

The scheme change might be best for Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins, who will both move both from defensive tackle to defensive end. Both are natural fits for the position and Jenkins has some experience playing there from his days in Green Bay. Mike Patterson, Cedric Thornton, and Derek Landri will provide solid depth, though the latter is a free agent this off-season. Antonio Dixon has to be thrilled about the position change as well. He’s a talented player in the right scheme, but he was lost in Philadelphia’s wide nine last year, which is why he was cut and not brought back until Jim Washburn was fired and the Eagles scrapped the wide nine. He looks like a natural fit at 3-4 nose tackle, but they’ll have to bring in competition.

The biggest risk is changing schemes for them is that their edge rushers might not fit. Brandon Graham was one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL last year and dominated once given a chance to start down the stretch last year. Trent Cole, meanwhile, is coming off a down year, but in the 6 years prior, he was one of the most consistently excellent defensive ends in the NFL. It might not be a good idea to mess with success. One thing the Eagles do have, however, is plenty of depth at rush linebacker. Vinny Curry was a 2nd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and Phillip Hunt and Darryl Tapp have played well in limited action, though the latter is a free agent this off-season.

Their expected middle linebackers are DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. Ryans stays in his 2012 spot in the middle, while Kendricks moves from the outside. Those two probably had different reactions to finding out they’d be changing schemes. Ryans was nowhere near his normal self in Houston in a 3-4 in 2011, which is why he got traded to the Eagles. Kendricks, meanwhile, struggled as a rookie, but perhaps a change to a 3-4 will get him turned around. He played in a 3-4 in college, playing both inside and outside. The Eagles don’t have any major needs in the front 7, with the exception of competition for Dixon, but they didn’t really have any to begin with.
3-4 to 4-3

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are making the opposite move this off-season, going from years of a 3-4 back to a 4-3. While I don’t understand hiring Monte Kiffin if he’s not going to run his signature Tampa 2 coverage scheme, I like the move to a 4-3 for the Cowboys. All 3 of their talented non-rush linebackers, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Dan Connor, will be able to be on the field at the same time, while Lee and Carter will be able to play in space more often. Jay Ratliff is a better fit in a 4-3 than a 3-4 on the nose, though after his recent arrest, it’s questionable if he’ll be brought back next season. Jason Hatcher is tentatively expected to play defensive tackle next to him, but he is a bit of a tweener in a 4-3.

DeMarcus Ware will move to 4-3 defensive end, which is not as risky as moving an edge rusher from a 3-4 to a 4-3 because most edge rushers played in a 4-3 in college, as Ware did. I have no doubt he’ll be able to get to the quarterback regardless of the scheme. Their biggest issue is at defensive end opposite Ware. Anthony Spencer is not expected to be retained as a free agent because the Cowboys don’t have a lot of cap space. Fellow free agent Victor Butler is an option, as he’s been solid in limited action throughout his career. They also have Tyrone Crawford, a 2012 3rd round pick who might be a better fit in a 4-3 than a 3-4. Hatcher is also an option, but that would leave them with just Marcus Spears, Sean Lissemore, and Jay Ratliff inside, assuming the latter is even retained. They could add an end through the draft at some point.


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