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Rutter: The inexact science of evaluating 3-4 pass rushers

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INDIANAPOLIS – Despite all of the measurements and drills conducted at all-star games, scouting combine and pro days, the Steelers don’t know whether a college player has the aptitude to play outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme until much later in the calendar year.
How much later?
“Usually when they line up on a Sunday,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday.
For some former college stars, such as 2015 first-round draft pick Bud Dupree, the transition to professional pass rusher comes smoothly. For others, like 2013 top draft pick Jarvis Jones, the progression is much slower – if it ever happens at all.
The Steelers are expected to add another pass rusher in the draft, likely in the first round, which makes the topic especially pertinent at the NFL combine.
Addressing reporters here, Colbert said evaluating players who can play outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense is the most challenging of any position on the field.
Colbert estimates “80-90 percent” of college defensive ends or outside linebackers play in a stance.
“We have to try to project whether a guy can stand up and do extra things than pass rush that is required in our defense,” Colbert said. “The margin for error at the outside linebacker position is really greater … because most of the time it is a projection.”
For the Steelers, the task is projecting whether a player also can, according to Colbert, match up with a tight end or offensive tackle and drop into pass coverage.
“The dropping part, we won’t see until we get in here for initial workouts and follow up at the pro day,” Colbert said.
Invited to the combine were 51 players classified as either defensive ends or outside linebackers.
“As we go through this, we probably lose three, four, five guys that we say are 4-3 defensive ends instead of 3-4 linebackers,” Colbert said.
Complicating matters at the combine is the limited time scouts, coaches and general managers can watch each player. Colbert said defensive ends/outside linebackers go through three types of pass drill and are thrown three balls.
“Sometimes, it’s the first time they’ve caught a ball,” he said.
At the player’s pro day is when the Steelers have a chance to work with an outside linebacker prospect more closely.
To determine whether a player can physically adapt to the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, Colbert said the team focuses on his feet, hips and hands.
“You’re not really going to get into whether they know or understand what they’re doing,” Colbert said, referring to a player’s ability to drop into pass coverage. “You’re just looking at the physical ability to do it. You can transfer most of them, if they have the athleticism to do it. It’s just knowledge and repetition.”
As far as aptitude and, well, an actual ability to sack NFL quarterbacks, check back on Sundays starting in September for the answer.

— Joe Rutter

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Author: Joe Rutter

After 13 years covering the Pirates -- the first 13 of their losing streak from 1993-2012 -- I moved away from PNC Park and into an assistant editor's position. Now, in 2016, after 10 years away from a beat, I'm back and happily covering the Steelers.

 
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