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To What End? Examining the 3-4 DE Position

The 3-4 Defensive End has to be least glorious position on the football field. The position is one that doesn't get a lot of sacks and doesn't even get that many tackles. The same could be said for the Nose Tackle, but that guy at least gets seen in goal line stands when he gets penetration and stops an up-the-middle run. When the Defensive End gets penetration chances are the the RB or QB just moves to avoid him. He did his job, but there isn't much glory in it. On top of that, it's impossibly hard to get to a Pro Bowl since the top 4-3 Defensive Ends are usually guys that get 10+ sacks in a season. So who are these blue collar workers of the NFL? Let's get to know them with the same three questions from my similar post on Nose Tackles.

What is a Defensive End?

Who are the 3-4 Defensive Ends in the NFL?

Where do they come from?

What is a Defensive End?

A defensive end gets its name from being the guy on the end of the line of players on defensive who lineup at the line of scrimmage. In the 4-3 this player would line up across from one of the shoulders of the Tight End (6 or 7 technique, you read the Nose Tackle post). Their job is use their speed and power to avoid or attack the offensive lineman on a trajectory that will take them more or less straight to the QB. Obviously speed, pass rushing moves and acceleration to the QB will be the most prized skills for a player at this position. By contrast, the 3-4 defensive end will line up on the outside should of the offensive tackle and his only option is go through the one or more 300 pounders to get to the QB or RB, speed is not going to be a big help.

At this point, maybe you're thinking, "Hey Wonko, I've read/seen the Blind Side, the offensive tackle is supposed to be the athletic guy have to stop all kinds of pass rushes in order to keep his QB clean, isn't it a misuse of his abilities to block the defensive end when a Quarterback hungry sack specialist like Lawrence Taylor/Jerome Harrison/Joey Porter/Shawne Merriman is going to rush as well?" Well, you're right, and that's why the defensive end lines up where he does. He's running interference if he can in some way delay the offensive tackle then that helps his pass rushers get to the QB. If the offensive tackle just goes around the defensive end, then his responsibility shifts to attack the guard and getting penetration using his strength, quickness and hands.

The defensive end may always be a part of a "stunt" where he attacks the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle and forces him wide, while the linebacker rushes the passer to inside and attacks the less athletic guard (or possibly the blocking back if the guard is double teaming the nose tackle). The best defensive ends (your Richard Seymour's and Aaron Smiths) will be good enough to do all this and get some sacks and this may force the offensive to double team him. If he the end is double teamed to go along with the usually already double teamed Nose tackle, then the entire offensive is committed to blocking the 2 ends and the nose tackle leaving the linebackers free to attack with no opposition other than the running backs and tight ends. This is 3-4 Nirvana.

Who are the 3-4 Defensive Ends in the NFL?

Warning: This is a list of very boring and not-so-famous names.

Team Defensive Ends
Arizona Cardinals Calais Campbell/Darnell Dockett
Baltimore Ravens Trevor Pryce/Dwan Edwards
Cleveland Browns Kenyon Coleman/Robaire Smith/Corey Williams
Dallas Cowboys Igor Olshanksy/Marcus Spears
Denver Broncos Ryan McBean/Kenny Peterson/Vonnie Holliday
Green Bay Packers Johnny Jolly/Cullen Jenkins
Kansas City Chiefs Tyson Jackson/Glenn Dorsey/Wallace Gilberry
Miami Dolphins Kendall Langford/Randy Starks
New England Patriots Ty Warren/Jarvis Green
New York Jets Shaun Ellis/Marques Douglas
Pittsburgh Steelers Aaron Smith/Brett Keisel/Travis Kirschke
San Diego Chargers Luis Castillo/Jacques Cesaire/Travis Johnson/Alphonso Boone
San Francisco 49ers Isaac Sapoaga/Justin Smith


Where do they come from?

I'm going to do the same breakdown by conference and draft position that I did for the nose tackles, but I must warn you that just from perusing the list above I can tell you that most were not drafted to play 3-4 defensive end. Some, like the Green Bay, Arizona and Denver DEs are holdovers from their 4-3 days and have been thrust into the 3-4 DE position merely by being the most qualified on their team. Others are former high draft picks as 4-3 DEs (Justin Smith, Shaun Ellis) or DTs (Glenn Dorsey, Travis Johnson, Randy Starks, Darnell Dockett) who didn't work out at those positions or maybe just got too old to rush the passer well (Trevor Pryce, Vonnie Holliday) but found their way to jobs in the 3-4. And then there are a bunch of journeyman who are either just finding their niche as 3-4 role players (Alphonso Boone) or have been playing rent-a-4-3-DE (Jacques Cesaire, Marques Douglas, Kenyon Coleman, Travis Kirschke, Robaire Smith, Jarvis Green) for years. Most of the rest then make up the "drafted as 3-4 DE guys" (Luis Castillo, Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Smith, Ty Warren, Brett Keisel, Isaac Sapoaga, Dwan Edwards).

ACC (6): Florida State (2, Dockett, Johnson), Maryland (1, Starks), UNC (1, Holliday), Clemson (1, Pryce), Miami (1, Campbell)

SEC (6): LSU (4, Dorsey, Green, Jackson, Spears), Tennessee (Ellis), Alabama (Gilberry)

Bg 12 (4): Texas A&M (2, Warren, Jolly), Missouri (J. Smith), Oklahoma State (1, McBean)

Pac 10 (4): UCLA (2, Coleman, Kirschke), Oregon State (1, Edwards), Oregon (1, Olshanksy)

Big Ten (3): Northwestern (1, Castillo), Ohio State (1, Peterson), Michigan State (1, R. Smith)

Mid Majors (3): Hawaii (1, Sapoaga), Central Michigan (1, Jenkins), BYU (1, Keisel)

"Small" Schools (6): Cen. Conn. St (1, Cesaire), No. Colorado (1, A. Smith), Mt. San Antonio JC (1, Boone), Howard (1, Douglas), Hampton (1, Langford), Arkansas St (Williams)

With the small sample size here we can see that LSU produces a lot of big men. Two are well established players (Spears and Green), but not stars. One is not really suited for his role in KC (Dorsey) and the other is just getting his career going in the NFL (Jackson). 3 of them are 1st round picks (all, except Green). I'm not sure there is much to draw from that though. The small schools combine for as many DEs as either of two main big conference sources, which, I think, just points to the fact that these guys can come from anywhere. You just need to be big and strong and take time to learn what you need to do in your role. These are not super athletic giants or fast and slippery speed players, they are the workman of the NFL and just need a certain amount of talent and the rest is just going to work everyday and doing your job well.

Finally, let's break it down by round. We already know we are going to see a fair amount of 1st rounders.

1st Round (9): Castillo, Dorsey, Ellis, Holliday, Jackson, Johnson, Pryce, Spears, J. Smith

2nd Round (3): Campbell, Olshansky, Edwards

3rd Round (4): Dockett, Langford, Peterson, Starks

4th Round (3): McBean, Sapoaga, A. Smith

5th Round (1): Coleman

6th Round (3): Jolly, R. Smith, Williams

7th Round (2): Boone, Keisel

UDFA (4): Cesaire, Kirschke, Gilberry, Jenkins

The trend I see here is that, as I mentioned before, the first rounds are basically high talent guys that can't find their place. Some have gotten second chances in the 3-4, at least one needs a second chance somewhere else (Dorsey) and at least 1 is probably a poor fit in the 3-4, but has the talent to pull it off (Ellis). All of the guys in rounds 2-4 are guys that seem made for the 3-4. Almost all of them have played there their entire careers and are important parts of their defense, although probably not the most important parts. The rest are more of the scrappy guys that find roles on teams that have injuries or just need someone to start for a season or two until they find the right guy or they are 4-3 guys who transitioned to the 3-4 very recently and the jury is still out. Interesting stuff. 

So what does this mean for the 2010 draft? My take is that there is some untapped value in the first round if you can get one of those guys that would end up failing in the 4-3, but the safer route is to go for a truer 3-4 DE in the 2nd through 4th rounds, although, the Chargers just drafted a guy in the 4th round for that role (Martin), they have a former 1st round pick on their roster (Castillo) and could potentially bring back another (Johnson).