The NFL has become a spread it out type game. With offenses going to multiple receiver sets and throwing the ball more than ever, defenses have been forced to adjust and not just from one season to the next. Defensive coordinators have had to switch week to week and in several cases during the course of a game. That's why front seven prospects at this year's NFL Combine that offer a versatile skill set to play in a 4-3 or 3-4 defensive front might be more coveted than ever.
"Everybody plays a little bit of everything on defense," said Bills scout Brian Fisher. "You don't see teams staying in 30 fronts 70-80 percent of the snaps. If it's half the time it's a lot. You're in nickel 50-60 percent of the time, so for the most part even 30 front teams are in over fronts most of the time. Guys on defense that can play and put their hand down, stand up on certain downs and give you scheme versatility… that's valuable."
"The reason you have to (be so multiple on defense) is with four and five wides and no backs and three tight ends and everything else they make you match up," said Bills GM Buddy Nix of NFL offenses.
The Bills are one of two teams in the AFC East alone that are switching to a 4-3 base defense from a 3-4 (Miami is the other). Buffalo found themselves with four down linemen on the field about half the time anyway so they're not anticipating the transition to be daunting in the least.
Even in Chan Gailey's first season as head coach in 2010 his defense had to go with four down linemen a good portion of the season due mainly to a run defense that needed a fourth player on the line of scrimmage. Changing the defensive formula on a weekly basis that season prompted Nix and his personnel staff to draft defensive players that offered scheme versatility.
"The guys we drafted last year, Marcell Dareus can play in any defense," said Nix. "Aaron Williams, he's going to play no matter what you do. Kelvin Sheppard can play in either defense. Da'Norris Searcy he's going to play in either. All of our defensive draft picks last year would fit either defense."
Having the body type and skill set to seamlessly adapt from one defensive scheme to another is an asset that could very well boost the overall grade on a prospect in the eyes of many NFL clubs.
Bills new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said last week that he's looking for pass rushers at end and fast linebackers. That might seem like a one-dimensional description for those positions, but Wannstedt made his preferences clear in his press conference last week.
"The thing that you want to try to avoid is situational players as much as you can," he said.
Players like Nick Barnett or Kyle Williams that are true three down players no matter the scheme or personnel package are what Buffalo and a lot of other teams are seeking.
"With all the creative offenses going on you've got to have more athletic guys on defense," said Bills scout Matt Hand. "A prospect's intelligence is also important because they have to be able to line up and know what they're doing in multiple spots."
So what front seven prospects on defense in this year's draft class offer the best scheme versatility?
Unfortunately for the Bills most of them are defensive tackles in what is a deep class for interior defensive linemen.
"The best guy right now would be a Michael Brockers from LSU," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper. "In a 3-4 he can be an end and in a 4-3 he can be an inside guy in a four-man front. Dontari Poe from Memphis could be a nose tackle in a 3-4 and a DT in a 4-3."
Some defensive ends that Kiper believes have a chance to also play on their feet as an outside linebacker include Whitney Mercilus from Illinois, Andre Branch from Clemson and Nick Perry from USC.
Two of the more versatile pass rushers in the entire draft class are South Carolina's Melvin Ingram and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw.
"Ingram has tremendous scheme versatility," Kiper said. "For what he did at South Carolina and the fact that he can also play on his feet he's one of the better options. Courtney Upshaw gives you a little bit of that. Some believe he's more of a 4-3 end, but I think he's a 3-4 OLB." The problem is just like Kiper, NFL talent evaluators in many cases will be projecting that versatility. Knowing the defensive concepts rarely change week to week in college football the opportunity to see a prospect in a different scheme to effectively determine their versatility is often limited to postseason all-star games.
That's why the testing and drills on the Lucas Oil Stadium field over the next week will be an important part of the process. It will provide a measure of guidance to NFL personnel men as to just how adaptable a defensive prospect can be.