Patriots’ Linebackers, Defensive Linemen Have Versatility to Run 4-3, 3-4, Hybrid Base Defense

Chandler Jones, Jerod MayoMuch has been made about the defensive versatility the Patriots possess in their front seven this season.

It’s apparent that Bill Belichick loves to have some leniency with his players up front. He’s praised Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich and Jamie Collins for their positional versatility, which allows him to put the best 11 players on the field even if those players aren’t playing their “best” positions.

I received a question on Twitter on Tuesday asking which players in the front seven fit best in a 4-3 versus a 3-4. The Patriots have the ability to run more 3-4 looks this season after staying in a 4-3 base for much of 2011 and 2012 due to the versatility across the board.

This was an impossible question to answer in 140 characters or even over a span of tweets, so I figured I could flesh it out into it’s own post. I decided to go through every player, look at what positions they can play and then decide what their strongest position would be.

To give a quick refresher on all the different positions as simply as possible: in a 4-3, the seven-technique defensive end is an edge defender. The right-side end will be more of a traditional pass rusher (think Jared Allen), while the left-side end will be bigger and more of an edge-setting run stopper (Chris Long). A three-technique defensive tackle is more of an interior rusher (Geno Atkins), while the one-technique defensive tackle is more of a run stopper (Vince Wilfork). The weak-side linebacker will be smaller, faster and better in coverage (Derrick Brooks), the middle linebacker should possess the best overall ability (Brian Urlacher) and a strong-side linebacker will be the biggest, best run stopper and hopefully have some blitzing ability (Von Miller).

In a 3-4, a five-technique defensive end should be able to set the edge against the run while getting some penetration inside (J.J. Watt). The five-technique is like a mix between a left defensive end and three-tech defensive tackle. The nose tackle is essentially the same as the one-technique DT above (Wilfork). There are two outside linebackers — one will be like the right defensive end above (DeMarcus Ware), while the other will be similar to a strong-side linebacker (Ahmad Brooks of San Francisco). The two inside linebackers are like middle and weak-side linebackers (Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman).

Really, the differences between the two alignments can be overblown. They are all similar roles, except edge rusher will be standing up and the defensive line will be shifted.

Edge Defenders

Marcus Benard
Versatility: Seven-technique right defensive end, LDE (4-3), outside linebacker (3-4)
Best Fit: OLB (3-4)

Benard played RDE, LDE and outside linebacker during his time in Cleveland. His most successful year was in 2010 when he played in a 3-4, racking up 7 1/2 sacks in 15 games as a situational pass rusher. Benard likely wouldn’t play much in a base defense anyway, so his fit in a 4-3 versus 3-4 base is a bit moot.

Jake Bequette
Versatility: Seven-technique RDE, LDE (4-3), OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: Seven-technique LDE (4-3)

Bequette didn’t get many snaps in 2012 after being a third-round pick out of Arkansas. During his time with the Razorbacks, Bequette was an accomplished run defender.

Michael Buchanan
Versatility: Seven-technique RDE (4-3), OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: OLB (3-4)

Buchanan’s best strength is as a pass rusher. He has the agility to get around the offensive line in a 3-4.

Jermaine Cunningham
Versatility: Seven-technique RDE, LDE, three-technique defensive tackle (4-3), five-technique defensive end, OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: Seven-technique LDE (4-3)

Cunningham is one of the most versatile players on the Patriots. He can play all over the field and was mostly used as a three-technique situational rusher in 2012. He even played some strong-side linebacker in 2011.

Justin Francis
Versatility: Seven-technique LDE, three-technique DT (4-3), five-technique DE, OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: Seven-technique LDE (4-3)

Francis is an odd fit anywhere given his size, but he’s best served as a defensive end in a 4-3. His best asset is his strength and run-stopping ability.

Chandler Jones
Versatility: Seven-technique LDE, RDE (4-3), five-technique DE, OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: Seven-technique LDE (4-3)

Jones played RDE in 2012, but he’s bulked up over the season and would be best served as a LDE given his stout run defense. He can play on either side of the line and could even stand up in a 3-4 due to his pass-rushing skills.

Rob Ninkovich
Versatility: Seven-technique LDE, RDE, strong-side linebacker (4-3), OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: OLB (3-4)

Ninkovich is another extremely versatile player. Just the fact that he played strong-side linebacker in 2011 and left defensive end the next year showcases that. He’s a chameleon that will fit any defense he’s put in.

Jason Vega
Versatility: Seven-technique LDE, RDE (4-3), OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: Seven-technique RDE (4-3)

There’s not much known about Vega, but given his size and production in the CFL, he’s best served in a pass-rushing role in the NFL.

Interior Defenders

Armond Armstead
Versatility: Three-technique DT (4-3), five technique DE (3-4)
Best Fit: Three-technique DT (4-3)

Armstead told the media during rookie mini-camp that he can play all over. He said he was even used standing up and rushing off the edge in the CFL. It’s unlikely we see much of that out of Armstead in the NFL, but his best role will be getting after the passer from the inside. If the Patriots chose to go back to a bigger 4-3 alignment, he could also play left defensive end.

Dewayne Cherrington
Versatility: One-technique DT (4-3), nose tackle (3-4)
Best Fit: NT (3-4)

Cherrington didn’t play much at Mississippi State, but he’s a massive presence who’s best served to play nose tackle in a 4-3 or 3-4.

Marcus Forston
Versatility: One-technique DT, three-technique DT (4-3), NT, five-technique DE (3-4)
Best Fit: One-technique DT (4-3)

Forston has flashed the ability to get after the passer inside, but given the Patriots’ lack of depth at nose tackle, he may be forced to play in that role. He certainly has the size.

Cory Grissom
Versatility: One-technique DT, three-technique DT (4-3), five-technique DE, NT (3-4)
Best Fit: Three-technique DT (4-3)

Grissom has the size of a one-technique, but the skill of a three-technique. He doesn’t have great length, which could limit him as a five-technique defensive end.

Tommy Kelly
Versatility: Three-technique DT, one-technique DT (4-3), five-technique DE (3-4)
Best Fit: Three-technique DT (4-3)

Kelly played in both a 3-4 and 4-3 while in Oakland. His best role would be at three-technique next to Wilfork. But his role in a 3-4 would not be much different.

Joe Vellano
Versatility: Three-technique DT (4-3), five-technique DE (3-4)
Best Fit: Three-technique DT (3-4)

Vellano is a nice run defender, but he doesn’t have the size to play nose tackle. On obvious rushing downs he would be best served to play three-tech defensive end.

Vince Wilfork
Versatility: One-technique DT, three-technique DT (4-3), NT, five-technique DE (3-4)
Best Fit: NT (3-4)

Wilfork can and has played all along the defensive line. He’s best at taking up room at the nose, though.

Linebackers

Steve Beauharnais
Versatility: Middle linebacker, weak-side linebacker (4-3), inside linebacker, OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: ILB (3-4)

Beauharnais flashed some nice pass rushing skills at Rutgers, which could lead him to play OLB in a pinch. His best role would be at inside linebacker in a 3-4, due to his size and cover abilities.

Jamie Collins
Versatility: WLB, SLB, seven-technique RDE (4-3), OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: OLB (3-4)

Collins was thought of as an odd selection by the Patriots because he’s best served to play in a 3-4. Outside linebacker plays to his biggest strengths, while he may be a little too big to play weak-side linebacker and too small to play right defensive end in a 4-3.

Dane Fletcher
Versatility: MLB, SLB (4-3), OLB, ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: MLB (4-3)

Fletcher has played all over, too, mostly playing outside linebacker his rookie year and moving to middle linebacker his second year. He’s been playing middle linebacker in Brandon Spikes’ absence.

Dont’a Hightower
Versatility: SLB, MLB (4-3), ILB, OLB (3-4)
Best Fit: SLB (4-3)

Hightower did it all at Alabama, including playing some defensive end on third down. It’s doubtful he does that in the NFL, but he could play outside linebacker in a 3-4. His best role is likely the one he played in 2012, but a switch to the 3-4 would not hurt him and would actually get him more pass rushing opportunities.

Niko Koutouvides
Versatility: SLB, MLB (4-3), OLB, ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: SLB (4-3)

Koutouvides is mostly a special teams player, but he’s played all over at linebacker throughout his 10-year career.

Jerod Mayo
Versatility: WLB, MLB (4-3), ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: ILB (3-4)

Mayo had a great season playing weak-side linebacker in 2012, even though he lacks elite coverage skills.

Mike Rivera
Versatility: SLB, MLB (4-3), ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: SLB (4-3)

Rivera is also mostly a special teams player, but he’s played strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker during his career.

Brandon Spikes
Versatility: MLB, SLB (4-3), ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: MLB (4-3)

Spikes’ lack of speed means that he likely won’t be playing much outside linebacker or weak-side linebacker. But his downhill style is perfect at middle linebacker in a 4-3.

Jeff Tarpinian
Versatility: MLB, WLB (4-3), ILB (3-4)
Best Fit: ILB (3-4)

Tarpinian is also a better special teams player than defender, but his athleticism allows him to play the more agile linebacker roles — middle linebacker, weak-side linebacker and inside linebacker.

***

In all, there are 14 players best suited for a 4-3 and 10 best suited for a 3-4. Among the projected starters (Jones, Ninkovich, Kelly, Wilfork, Hightower, Mayo, Spikes), four are best suited for a 4-3 and three are better suited for a 3-4.

It makes sense that the 4-3 is a better fit for more players, since that’s the base alignment that the Patriots ran in 2011 and 2012. It’s unlikely the Patriots completely ditch the 4-3 in 2013, but it’s likely we start to see more of a hybrid look. And New England’s versatility on defense shows that they could do that.

On third down, the Patriots will use their sub package, which includes four down linemen and either one or two linebackers with all the best pass rushers and coverage players on the field.

Yardbarker

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