March 31, 2003
‘Tweener Rock and a Hard Place
by Warren DeLuca
Late draft guru extraordinaire Joel Buchsbaum defined a tweener as a "player whose projected position in the NFL falls between two positions, such as defensive end and outside linebacker." Dom Capers loves these hybrids as pass rushers, regardless of what position they are listed at in the Sunday game program. "A guy with that kind of size gives you flexibility in your defense," he told the Houston Chronicle‘s John McClain. "For instance, you can lineup in a 3-4, and as the offense sets up, you can step into a 4-3 and change their blocking schemes with your outside linebackers and defensive ends." Keeping the offense guessing is a key tenet of Capers’ defensive philosophy.
Capers’ defenses have led the NFL in sacks for three of the ten seasons in which he has been either a defensive coordinator or head coach. Each of those squads featured a duo of edge rushers who accounted for a large chunk of the teams’ sacks: Kevin Greene (14.0 sacks) and Greg Lloyd (10.0) of the 1994 Steelers (55), Greene (14.0) and Lamar Lathon (13.5) of the 1996 Panthers (60), and Tony Brackens (12.0) and Kevin Hardy (10.5) of the 1999 Jaguars (57).
Tweeners have dominated Capers’ defenses, usually as outside linebackers in a base 3-4 alignment. When Capers coached the Saints’ defensive backs and Texans defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coached the New Orleans outside linebackers, the "Dome Patrol" starred Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling. As collegians, Jackson was an end in Pitt’s 5-2 defense and Swilling was both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 end at Georgia Tech. Both also ended their NFL careers as 4-3 ends. With the Steelers, and later the Panthers, Capers had Greene, a 5-2 end at Auburn. Greene also played as a 4-3 end in the NFL. Lathon, Greene’s partner in crime in Carolina, played 4-3 middle and outside linebacker at the University of Houston but moved to 4-3 end for his last season with the Oilers. Jacksonville’s Tony Brackens was listed as a 4-3 end, the same position he had played in college at Texas, but Capers utilized him very similarly to how he employed the 3-4 outside linebackers. Brackens’ three interceptions in two seasons under Capers’ system indicate that he did not have the typical responsibilities of a down lineman. With the Texans last year, Capers had Kailee Wong and Jeff Posey, who were 4-3 ends at Stanford and Southern Mississippi, respectively.
All of these guys are or were between 6’2" and 6’4", and weighed between 242 and 260 lbs. Only the freakish Lathon ran better than a 4.7 40-yard dash. Other common denominators include explosiveness and relentlessness, and all are or were much better going forward than in reverse. While Capers has also had some standout "pure" outside linebackers like Lloyd and Hardy, tweeners have always played a significant role in his pass rush strategies.
Despite a respectable performance overall, the 2002 Texans recorded only 35 sacks, the fewest by any defense overseen by Capers. The fact that Posey, who led the team with 8.0 sacks, signed with the Bills will not help for 2003. The Texans have added two tweeners in Patrick Chukwurah and Antonio Wilson, but nothing they have done in the NFL to date suggests that either of these linebackers will upgrade the Houston pass rush. Absent a more substantial signing or a player within the organization such as Erik Flowers suddenly emerging in a major way, the Texans will likely have to look to the draft for help in 2003.
The clear number one tweener in the draft is Arizona State’s Terrell Suggs. Suggs owns the NCAA single-season sack record (although sacks have only been an official stat since 2000) after notching 24.0 as a 4-3 end in 2002. However, the naysayers have emerged in force after Suggs looked rather unimpressive in a workout for NFL coaches, scouts, and personnel men last Wednesday. Suggs caused the most disappointment when instead of running a 4.6 40 as many had expected, he ran in the 4.8 range. Suggs weighed in at 257 lbs., though, noticeably heavier than his estimated playing weight last season of around 240 lbs. He was obviously trying to show that he could carry the bulk to be an every-down end in a 4-3 defense, the scheme used by a great majority of NFL teams. Why should the Texans, or any other 3-4 team, worry very much about how Suggs moves at a pumped-up 257 lbs.? History shows that while bigger is better (all else being equal) in football, an outside linebacker in Capers’ scheme can be successful at Suggs’ natural weight. Regardless, Suggs is only twenty years old, so he should get bigger and stronger in time as he physically matures and gets into an NFL workout regimen.
Suggs also reportedly looked nervous at the workout, affecting his performance. Does that show an inability to perform under pressure? Will he wilt under the glare of the NFL spotlight? Not necessarily. Maybe Suggs would have felt more comfortable and showed better had they had him chase a quarterback down the track. He is a football player, after all, and he is at his best when he is in pursuit. Suggs played well in Arizona State’s big games – for example, in this year’s Holiday Bowl, when his possible early entrance to the NFL was a major storyline, he had two sacks and earned defensive MVP honors.
An anonymous scout from an AFC South team summed up Suggs’ post-workout draft standing to Len Paquarelli of ESPN.com: "You still have to look at the kid’s body of work for his career and, let’s face it, he was just hell on wheels as a pass rusher in college. Did he help himself? No, it’s not like he moved himself up into position to be considered for the top pick. But he isn’t going to fall too far."
Suggs’s body of work prompts scouts to use words like "explosive", "relentless", "disruptive", "instinctive", and "playmaker". Stanford offensive tackle Kwame Harris, another likely first-rounder, sang Suggs praises to The Sporting News‘ Dennis Dillon, despite Suggs not putting up great stats against the Cardinal in 2002 (three tackles, no sacks, an interception): "His first step off the ball is incredible, and he has the strength to go along with it. You wouldn’t guess just by his size that he would be as powerful a human being as he is." Suggs is also smart enough to score a 31 on the Wonderlic intelligence test given at the combine (21 is an average score), and, according to his college coaches, understands defensive schemes very well and gets the big picture of what the defense is trying to accomplish on a given play.
Suggs met privately with the Texans last Thursday, for lunch according to one report and for linebacker drills according to another. Whatever the nature of the meeting, if the team came away reasonably satisfied, Suggs should still be in contention for the third overall pick in the draft despite his poor showing on Wednesday. He fits the mold of tweeners who have thrived in Capers’ defense too well to write him off because of one bad day in shorts and a t-shirt. If the Texans opt to go another direction with their top selection other tweeners that they may consider later include Jerome McDougle (Miami), Alonzo Jackson (Florida State), Tully Banta-Cain (Cal), Antwan Peek (Cincinnati), Calvin Pace (Wake Forest), Clint Mitchell (Florida), Andrew Williams (Miami), Aaron Hunt (Texas Tech), Nick Burley (Fresno State), Shurron Pierson (South Florida), Bryant McNeal (Clemson), Jimmy Wilkerson (Oklahoma), Jamaal Green (Miami), Omari Hand (Tennessee), Shantee Orr (Michigan), and Brandon Green (Rice).
The Texans’ needs on offense are obvious, but a pass rusher should be near the top of their wish list, as well. At this point in the franchise’s development, they need to focus more on grabbing potential impact players and difference makers than filling any particular hole; that type of player is too rare and too hard to get in free agency. Suggs still looks like he could fit into that category, especially in Capers’ defensive system.
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