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At Linebacker, Versatility a Must

When Bill Davis was a linebackers coach with the New York Giants in 2004, the

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team drafted a college defensive end they wanted to turn into a linebacker by the name of Reggie Torbor.

Torbor was the typical hand-in-the-ground pass rusher, but he had shown enough potential versatility that Davis and others thought he could make the transition. But, Davis said, there was a catch.

?I told everybody, ?This young man is a year away from making you happy,? ? Davis said. ?He?s going to come into this first minicamp and you?re going to say, ?Oh no.? ?

Of the top 11 outside linebacker candidates for the 3-4 alignment in this draft, 10 have spent their college years in a 4-3 scheme. That means a longer learning curve and less of an immediate payoff.

But the Cardinals must be patient in their quest for versatile outside linebackers/pass rushers, virtually a must in morphing toward 3-4 defensive principles the team seeks. Coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to be able to use both 3-4 and 4-3 looks, forcing an even higher priority on players who can do a little of everything.

?I have always been a guy who gravitates to linebackers, no matter inside or outside, who are more versatile,? said Davis, now the Cardinals? defensive coordinator. ?Everyone talks about stopping the run, but there are more pass snaps than run snaps. The versatility and athleticism and knowledge of the game ? you have to have good football knowledge ? helps the versatility to be able to read and react.

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?A guy may not be the heaviest or biggest run stopper. He may not be the quickest or longest pass defender. But he?s got a little of all of it.?

The Cardinals got by last season with only one of their top four outside linebackers in their 3-4 sets ? Clark Haggans ? having extensive experience in such a role. Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor and Travis LaBoy were historically straight defensive ends.

Haggans knows the versatility which the coaches seek, because he went through the process. He was a defensive end at Colorado State, and when he was drafted by the Steelers they suddenly wanted him to drop in to coverage, be able to punish ballcarriers in space and rush the passer.

?The transition to standing up is hard enough,? Haggans said. ?My first two years in the NFL, you have to learn, you have to get beat, and you have to learn how you got beat so it doesn?t happen again. There are growing pains.?

Searching out the Cards? best fit at linebacker is a detailed process. Director of player personnel Steve Keim said the Cards? scouts have had to re-train themselves to a point to find what the coaches are seeking.

The defensive coaches have a list that the scouts use as part of the evaluation. Davis declined to be specific on the exact talents for obvious reasons. But if there are, for example, three areas and a potential draftee is better at No. 1 than No. 3 while another player is better at No. 3 than No. 1, then the first player will be higher on the Cards? draft board. Other teams may have their areas of import ranked differently, which is why another team?s draft board can look different.

And again, scouts may only be able to guesstimate how good a college player is at one or more of those talents. If all a player does is rush upfield in college, Keim said, you?re not going to see his ability to drop or his hip flexibility.

Top 3-4 prospects like Penn State?s Aaron Maybin, Texas? Brian Orakpo and Northern Illinois? Larry English all will deal with similar learning curves.

A player often has to be given a year to adjust ? just like Torbor in New York. The Cards tried it with sixth-round pick Chris Harrington last season, although Harrington was eventually plucked off the Cards? practice squad by the Bengals before the Cardinals could see his journey through.

?It?s never an exact science,? Whisenhunt said, ?and it?s never easy.?


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 4/22/09.

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