Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Nick Bosa

© Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

2019 NFL Draft DE analysis

March 22, 2019 - 1:55 pm


With the 2018 season over, the all-star games took the main stage for NFL teams looking to rectify their issues at the level-one defensive unit. The NFL Scouting Combine saw several defensive end position records fall, as this class of talent could soon rival the great group that joined the league after the 2011 draft.

That year, nine players were chosen in the first rounds as defensive ends, including three that eventually starred at other positions. Edge rushers Von Miller (second overall to Denver) and Aldon Smith (seventh to San Francisco) were Top 10 choices, but few will argue that Houston did not get the better deal, securing the services of J.J. Watt with the eleventh selection.

Robert Quinn (14th to the Rams) and Ryan Kerrigan (16th to Washington) were hybrids, operating at both the conventional end spot while seeing more playing time at outside linebacker. Tampa Bay used the 20th choice to select Adrian Clayborn and four picks later, Cameron Jordan suited up for New Orleans. Muhammad Wilkerson started at end before shifting inside under Rex Ryan after the Jets took him with pick-30 and the Steelers then pounced on Cameron Heyward with the 31st selection.

Outside of Clayborn, who was recently cut by New England and Aldon Smith, on indefinite suspension by the league for numerous off-field issues, the rest are all expected to retain their starting status entering the 2019 campaign. Quinn is on the trading block, as the Dolphins, who acquired him from the Rams, are trying to entice Dallas or the Saints to take on his contract. Wilkerson is currently testing the free agent waters, but after being traded by the Jets, he spent the last two seasons with the Packers' front wall unit.


NFL teams are huddling within their complexes to analyze what their needs will be on the veteran free agent market and during the draft process. In this day and age of modern football, gone is the leather-helmeted player, replaced by specialized athletes with specific duties in a variety of formations.

In the National Football League, one of three defensive alignments are used by each team, with nine organizations relying upon the 3-4 scheme and thirteen still operating out of the classic 4-3 formation. Ten other teams use a four-man front, yet instead of the traditional interior linemen, they utilize one as a nose tackle in two variations.

The "under" front looks like a 50 (five-man) defensive line because the strong-side linebacker is up on the line of scrimmage. However, the real for sure way to tell if it’s an Under front, is that the one-technique defensive tackle is to the strong side. Under is the only front where a one-technique will be to the strong side of the formation. This front has been made commonplace in the NFL by the Seahawks, Jaguars, Raiders, 49ers and Falcons among others.

It creates more one-one-one match-ups, with defenders and blockers than most fronts, and that puts more stress on the other offensive linemen to get to the linebackers, otherwise the linebackers have clear paths to make plays. If there is a one-technique defensive tackle to the strong side (tight end side, usually) of the formation, it’s an Under.

Another look is the "Pro" defensive front, but it isn’t a very common formation, despite it putting a lot of stress on the offensive line, as there is a defender for every gap. In the "Over" front, the strong-side linebacker is typically out of the “box”, but in a Pro front, there are seven players in the box, which causes a lot of problems for the offensive line’s angles in the run game. This is often referenced as “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” All Pro fronts are Over fronts, but not all Over fronts are Pro fronts.

The biggest way to differentiate from an Over and a Pro, is the middle Linebacker. In a Pro defensive front, the “Mike” is in a 00 technique (head up on the center, second level defenders are given a second number to differ from the defensive line). This gives the offensive line very little leverage for either running inside or outside. This isn’t a common front, however, because it puts a ton of stress on your defensive ends, as well as your defensive backs. Having so many men dedicated to the box makes teams vulnerable on the outside.

The more traditional 4-3 alignment has been the “standard” for most teams in the modern era and relies upon four big defensive linemen and three linebackers. The first level defenders are assigned one-gap duties, with their defensive ends attacking from the B/C-gap areas while the interior defenders handle A-gap assignments.

Even though it is a traditional formation, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under then coordinator Monte Kiffin made the “Cover-2” scheme popular. Kiffin incorporated the three-tech or under-tackle who would often line up in the B-gap, acting more like a run-stuffing defensive end. Success by the under-tackle would often free up the team’s other defensive end to attack the backfield from the wide side.

In another variation of the Cover-2, teams use an athletic, physical defensive tackle to occupy multiple blockers. This allows the defensive end to handle B-gap assignments to rush the passer. That defensive end is bigger on the short side of the field and usually quicker on the field side, as both ends also need to be able to contain the outside running game in those situations.

For the ten teams not using the traditional alignment, they utilize the 3-4 scheme. In that system, it is the nose guard that takes out the “trash” as he will be lining up with two smaller-type of defensive ends that are normally used in a 4-3 alignment. Those edge rushers usually stay in a two-point stance, giving them a better opportunity to explode past a lethargic offensive lineman. Behind those ends are two bigger-sized linebackers, ready to handle and first-level leakage into the second level.

The interior defender needs to be physical enough to handle combo and double-team blocking situations. If the nose guard is successful in taking out multiple blockers, it frees up the inside linebackers to penetrate vs. one-one-one blockers or drop back to cover receivers in the short area. With quicker defensive ends in this scheme handling two-gap duties, slower, bigger 4-3 types are eliminated in favor of the smaller, 250-plus pound bodies playing along the edge.


Scouts are projecting that at least seven edge rushers will be selected in the first round. Gone are the days of the Too Tall Jones-like defensive ends, replaced by these sleek "sports car" types. The changes have occurred as teams put more emphasis on getting to the quarterback. The defensive ends at the 2000 NFL Combine averaged 6:03.5-277 and averaged 5.0/40-yard with 24 reps in the 225. The 2009 Combine group at this spot averaged 6:03.4-264, ran 4.92 with 24 reps. This year, they checked in at 6:04.5, 258, averaging 4.77 and 27 reps - obviously smaller, yet faster and stronger.

Fortunately for most NFL teams, they either utilize a 3-4 defensive scheme or incorporate speedy edge rushers at their defensive end positions. One look at the crop of conventional defensive ends – the tall, wide, run-stuffing types – and you will see why those teams are better looking at the veteran free agent route for talent.

Teams that utilize a 3-4 defensive alignment or pattern their 4-3 scheme much like Indianapolis did during the Dwight Freeney/Robert Mathis era - using cat-quick, under-sized edge rushers - will have a nice array of early round talent to choose from. While most of the top level talent here have also worked out for teams at the outside linebacker position, they are really better suited to play upfront in a stand-up position, as a lack of experience in pass coverage for a potential move to the second level might take time for those players to develop an all-around game.

Of the seven projected first round athletes at this position, three are more in tune with the "sleek" models - Kentucky's Josh Allen, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat and Florida's Brian Burns. Sweat, who was diagnosed with a minor heart issue, but was one of the Combine's main stars with a blazing 4.41-second clocking in the 40-yard dash.

The other four projected to go in Round One are more traditional types. Ohio State's Nick Bosa is an outstanding edge rusher who is also dominant working in-line to shoot the gaps. Michigan's Rashan Gary and Clemson's Clelin Ferrell might not have eye-opening statistics, but both have proven capable of filling a variety of roles at level-one. Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson has that cannibal-like hunger attacking the pocket, evident by his NCAA career-record 45.0 sacks. He also set school and Conference USA season-records with a nation-best 17.5 QB drops in 2018.


Standard 4-3

3-4 Alignment

4-3/With Under-Tackle

Atlanta Falcons

Arizona Cardinals

Cincinnati Bengals

Buffalo Bills

Baltimore Ravens (50% scheme)

Baltimore Ravens (50% scheme)

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Indianapolis Colts

Cleveland Browns

Denver Broncos

Jacksonville Jaguars

Dallas Cowboys

Green Bay Packers

Los Angeles Chargers

Detroit Lions

Houston Texans

Los Angeles Rams

Miami Dolphins

New York Jets

Minnesota Vikings

New England Patriots

Pittsburgh Steelers

New Orleans Saints

Oakland Raiders

Washington Redskins

New York Giants

Philadelphia Eagles


Tennessee Titans

Seattle Seahawks



San Francisco 49ers



Tampa Bay Buccaneers



NFL draft analysis provided exclusively to 92-9 The Game courtesy of The NFL Draft Report...