The NFL holds its annual draft combine this week and next in Indianapolis, and with more teams -- including the Packers, Steelers and Jets -- favoring the 3-4 defense, many college defensive ends may be worked out at outside linebacker. Most college teams don't play a 3-4, so NFL scouts must try to project which players will make a good 3-4 linebacker. It's a hit-or-miss proposition, and many high draft picks have been wasted on a pass rusher who didn't work out.
But some defensive ends have used the combine to show they have what it takes to make the switch to linebacker in the NFL. Before the 2005 combine, Troy State defensive end DeMarcus Ware was projected to be a second-round pick. Ware looked great at linebacker at the combine, and the Cowboys selected him 11th overall rather than Shawne Merriman of Maryland. Since then, Ware has collected 80 sacks and 25 forced fumbles for the Cowboys and gone to five consecutive Pro Bowls.
TPG: You were a defensive end at Troy, then Bill Parcells calls you up during the draft and says he wants you to be a pass rushing linebacker. Did you get visions of Lawrence Taylor in your head?
Ware: That's probably the first person I thought of ... but also I think about Derrick Thomas. I always looked up to him because I played defensive end and I never stood up. Lawrence Taylor was a great pass rusher standing up, but Derrick Thomas got the job done and he rarely stood up.
TPG: What's the first thing you had to learn about being a linebacker when you got to Dallas?
Ware: When you're down in a three-point stance, you have a lot more balance and leverage. When you're standing in a two-point stance, you have to learn to keep that leverage you played with when your hand was on the ground. That was the big transition for me. Secondly, I had to learn to play in space. When you're an outside linebacker, your roles change. You have to drop into coverage and you have a lot more responsibilities.
TPG: What are some of the most difficult or even scariest things you had to learn going into the outside linebacker spot?
Ware: When you're a defensive end, the only people you have to know are the offensive linemen. You don't have to know many formations; you just have to know how to beat the person in front of you. At outside linebacker you have to know the formations, you've got to know which is the strong side, where you're dropping to, what coverage your in. Your playbook triples. That was the biggest deal for me.
TPG: We always hear about "welcome to the NFL" moments. Did you have someone juke you out of your shorts or just lay you out and made you realize that you were no longer at Troy?
Ware: After I got drafted, I was in rookie camp and I was doing really well. Then an offensive lineman told me that I wasn't going to be able to do that to (Cowboys veteran lineman) Flozell Adams. When team camp started, I saw Flozell and he was bigger, he was stronger and he was smarter. So I got killed the entire training camp. He kept telling me that I couldn't just run around people and that I had to learn leverage, so he just laid me out all summer.
TPG: You keep using the word leverage.
Ware: That's the single most important thing for any position, having the right leverage. You don't have to be the biggest, strongest or fastest player if you have the right leverage. You don't have them moving you around, you can move them around and you're a lot more effective. It's all mental.
TPG: Mental? You mean setting guys up throughout a game?
Ware: It's a giant chess match. You're trying to get in your opponent's head and change what he thinks he should do with you. With me it's simple. No matter what I do, I try to make everything look the same.
TPG: What are some of the techniques and exercises you've done to help your body convert to a 3-4 linebacker?
Ware: I think the main thing is working on your hands. Young linebackers have to learn to use their peripherals to figure out how a guy is going to attack them and use their hands. Everybody thinks this is a big, pounding sport. It is, but it's not. If you can't get your hands on me, I don't have to worry about you touching me. Martial arts, pilates, a lot of core work because that's where it begins, in your core.
TPG: Were you doing these exercises in college?
Ware: Just a little bit, but when I got to the NFL, I figured it out fast.
TPG: So how long did it take before you finally became comfortable as an NFL 3-4 linebacker?
Ware: Two years. The first year is the learning process when you're a rookie. The second step is that you know what to do, so then you clean it up.
TPG: Finally, what advice do you have for the college guys coming out to these 3-4 defenses so they can be successful?
Ware: I think as an outside linebacker, you always gotta be fast, play with good leverage, and be smarter than the guy on the other side of the ball. Ninety percent of the time he's going to be bigger than you are, so you have to outwit him.