Bills head coach Chan Gailey made no secret of the fact that his defense in 2011 will be multiple in nature calling it a hybrid 3-4 that will incorporate "some four man fronts." Though they will primarily be a 3-4 scheme there will be some noticeable 4-3 elements, likely on a weekly basis come next season. The task now in effectively implementing that is adding to the talent pool already on the roster. With a draft class steeped in defensive line talent that also possesses crossover ability, the task for the Bills could prove to be a realistic one to accomplish.
"Outside linebacker to me and the defensive linemen are the deepest areas," said Bills GM Buddy Nix.
Many draft analysts believe that up to eight or nine defensive ends alone could come off the board in round one. The end class is that deep. The defensive tackle class isn't far behind. As many as two or three interior defenders could come off the board in round one as well. One of the main reasons why in addition to talent is scheme versatility.
NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi explains why the class is so plentiful in multiple scheme defenders.
"I think you can really see the trend this year," said NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi. "There are not as many 330-pound defensive linemen that we've seen in the past. Again the college game has become such a horizontal game that you need speed and athleticism. So it's a completely different the way the college game and pro games have changed."
Looking at the three prospects widely thought to be the best defensive linemen in the draft in Da'Quan Bowers, Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley, all of them are seen as multiple scheme players.
"Those guys are going to help anybody," said Nix. "This is really a draft heavy in defensive talent and pass rush guys. You talk about the scheme, these guys will fit in any scheme. They're football players. I know Chan has said we're going to be hybrid, which we were and will be."
Bowers played predominantly in a 4-3 defense, but at 275 pounds and armed with an unusually strong upper body even one of the pass rusher's former Clemson teammates believes Bowers could handle an end role in a 3-4 set.
"Oh without a doubt," said Bills running back C.J. Spiller. "He's a man amongst boys. He's a big guy. The thing about him is whatever the coaches ask of him he's going to do it. He's strong enough and he's quick enough so I think a role like that wouldn't be any concern for him. I know I wouldn't worry about him handling it."
Dareus played end in Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme at Alabama, but could very easily kick inside and play defensive tackle. At 6'3 1/8" and 319 pounds, some NFL clubs believe Dareus could even handle a nose tackle role in a 3-4.
"I can play multiple positions," said Dareus. "I think I would fit pretty well anywhere. At 'Bama we played a little four man (front) mixed in with our three man (front) and did some rotating. I think I could adapt pretty well. I've played three-technique, defensive end, nose, a little bit of everything."
Meanwhile Fairley, who played predominantly a three-technique defensive tackle role in Auburn's 4-3 system is certainly capable of playing at end in a 3-4 at 6'4" 291 pounds.
"I think I could play anywhere," Fairley said. "I can play in the 3-4 or 4-3. It doesn't matter to me. I could play end. I could play the shade, three-technique or grind at the five (technique)."
Some fits are naturally better than others, but there appears to be a healthy quantity of top flight talent in this year's class. The key according to Gailey is tailoring your scheme to a premier player's strengths.
"You find the best players you can find and you work your defense around whoever the best football players are," he said. "If you're leaner and you're better in a four man front you're going to spend more time in a four man front if that's who the people you get. If the people are more driven toward the 3-4 then that's what you'll do the majority of the time."
"We're still drafting for a 3-4 scheme and we will, but there are times where you get a guy like Kyle Williams," said Nix. "I don't care what defense you're playing you need to get guys like that in a position to make plays and that's what we'll do. If we had to kick it down to an under front and let a guy play in a three-technique (outside shade of guard) instead of a five (outside shade of tackle) that's easily done. These guys are football players and they make plays. Your scheme has got to be adaptable enough to get them in a place to let them play."
Nix has stated this offseason that he believes his team needs to add two more defensive ends, which has become all the more pressing in the wake of the Marcus Stroud release.
"You'd like to have five of those guys and we will," said Nix. "We'll get them somewhere."
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock believes scheme versatility on the defensive line stretches all the way to round three this year, which should only help the Bills first line of defense.
"There are really good 3-4 ends this year," he said. "I'm very impressed with J.J. Watt from Wisconsin. He can play inside or outside. I think he's a monster and he could be gone in the middle of round one. Cam Jordan from Cal is another. He had a great week at Senior Bowl. He's a five-technique DE. Cam Heyward from Ohio State. If you put their bowl game on he dominated that game. He was phenomenal against Arkansas. Muhammad Wilkerson from Temple he might be there in the second round, but he's a first-round player. He can play end in a 3-4 or inside in a 4-3. You could even pick up a Brandon Bair from Oregon in the third round or fourth round. There are a bunch of those 3-4 defensive ends out there this year."