Mailbag: What teams want in 3-4 defensive end

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Marco from Las Cruces writes: Okay, I like to think of myself as a die hard fan but I am missing something when it comes to the 3-4 DEs. What kind of player fits into that role? Is it a 4-3 DT that would play DE in the 3-4 or something else entirely (I remember the 49ers moved B.Y. to DE after they made the switch)? Please elaborate on this, thank you.

Mike Sando: The ideal 3-4 defensive end would be bigger than a 4-3 defensive end and lighter than most 4-3 defensive tackles. He would be big enough to line up against an offensive tackle. We would be talking about a guy weighing around 280 pounds.

Randy Mueller, senior executive with the Chargers, was with ESPN.com in 2004 when he described the 3-4 defensive end this way:

He must be strong at the point of attack and is aligned in most cases head up on an offensive tackle and must control runs gaps first and foremost. Size and strength become more of a factor because he plays in confines of line play and seldom is in space using athletic ability. Ideally this guy should weigh 275-290 pounds and be able to beat double teams by getting a push. It's a more physical task than that of a 4-3 end.

The thinking is that the 3-4 defensive end is easier to identify and find when it comes to scouting and acquiring personnel. Pass rushers like [Julius] Peppers and the Colts' Dwight Freeney are rare and hard to find and therefore very expensive to keep. There is no question that speed pass rushers are very much an impact position on the football field and their cap numbers reflect that. On the other hand, 3-4 defensive ends can be found easier and are much less expensive when it comes to cap dollars.

That helps explain why the Cardinals drafted Calais Campbell in 2008. They were protecting themselves from possibly losing Antonio Smith in free agency. If another team pays Smith above what a 3-4 defensive end typically gets, the Cardinals will move forward with a younger and cheaper alternative in Campbell.

Greg from Phoenix writes: Hey Sando, With Malcolm Jenkins running a sub-par 40 times at the combine, what are the chances that he enters the 49er's draft conversation with the 10th pick as a safety? Or is that too high for him at this point?

Mike Sando: I'm skeptical about these conversions. We have not seen Jenkins play safety. That makes it hard to assume he'll be a good one. I would be hesitant in taking Jenkins as early as No. 10 if I thought he would not play cornerback. Perhaps we are reading too much into these 40-yard times. Jenkins might very well become an excellent player in the NFL. But if Jenkins' times make him less than a top-flight prospect at corner, perhaps the team would be better served making a safer choice.

Kevin from Sylmar, Calif., writes: Well First Of All I Thought You Did An Awesome Job with the Free Agency Chat. But i was wondering two things what is the possibility of the 49ers picking up Jim Leonhard, i know that he may not be a top flight free agent but i think he provide not just an upgrade at the safety position but he would almost provide the 49ers defense with some needed youth and toughness in the secondary.

Also i know that you along with other analysts believe that the 49ers need a push rusher but it is my belief that Parlys Haralson can provide that. He did lead the team with 8 sacks in a limited time frame and you saw the strides in the back half of the season, and with Manny Lawson showing at the end of the season he has recovered from his surgery, is it a real stretch to believe that they may not need that top flight push rusher when it may just be a need for depth in area? Thank You in advance if you answer the question. Can't wait to read your response

Mike Sando: You're right about Haralson showing some pass-rush ability, but I don't think we've seen enough from Haralson and Lawson to just assume they'll solve the pass-rush deficiency. Personnel people are right when they say a team can't have enough pass rushers. The 49ers need someone the opposing teams have to account for in their game plans. They do not have that type of pass rusher at this time.

Leonhard will have options. I think the 49ers would have to overpay. Mike Lombardi of National Football Post says he thinks the Jets will sign Leonhard. That would be a natural move with Rex Ryan having left Baltimore.

Peter from San Francisco writes: What if the 9ers target Chris Canty as their Pass Rush Free agent pickup and focus on the RB/WR portion in the draft. Seems to make sense. also drafting another tackle as you previously stated could become more feasible.

Mike Sando: Canty has 10 sacks in four NFL seasons and the 49ers used a 2008 first-round choice on a 3-4 defensive end, so I'm not convinced. Perhaps you can elaborate.

Nic from Hawaii writes: Tried to get this answered on your free agent blog that you guys did, but you guys looked like you were getting slammed. How do the niners address their weakness in the secondary, especially the saftey positions? I know their pass rush has been non-existent and a consistent pass rush makes everyone look better (see steelers), but they have two safeties that just want to lower the boom and no ball hawks.

Also do you see the niners going after any free agent 3-4 DE's or a nose takle? I am not totaly convinced we have the right players on our DL to make the 3-4 work. Franklin and the rest of our DL's seem to be getting pushed around way too much. We have a lot of guys with high motors, but they all seem undersized. Is there anyone in free agency or in the draft you see us going after to address this?

Mike Sando: Niners general manager Scot McCloughan gave the impression the 49ers would probably solve the free safety situation from within. I could see them moving Dashon Goldson into the lineup and considering trying to develop Reggie Smith as a backup safety (something the team seems more amenable to trying at this point). The 49ers would then go with Michael Lewis at strong safety for another season.

Mike from Portland writes: Hi Mike, I'm still trying to figure out why the Seahawks defense did so poorly this season after having the same 11 starters back. If we set aside the coaching issue, it seems like the biggest factor may be that Trufant and Tatupu, two of their best players, just signed big contracts. Their play seemed to drop off considerably after that.

Do you have any stats for performance drop offs after signing big contracts? Is it different if they sign with another team vs. their existing team? I think back to Shaun Alexander and even way back to Rick Mirer who just disappeared immediately after signing big contracts. Or maybe injuries were the primary factor for the defensive dropoff?

Mike Sando: Trufant had a strong season for the most part. He wasn't the only one who had problems stopping Larry Fitzgerald. In retrospect, there was no shame in how he played against Fitzgerald. He did not make plays on the ball to the same degree as in 2007. Nobody did. An improved pass rush would help him on that front.

Your questions about Tatupu seem more justified, in my view. Anyone who goes out and gets a DUI after signing a massive contract invites scrutiny. I respect the way Tatupu has approached the game during his career. I respect the sincerity he showed in taking responsibility for the DUI. He pleaded guilty even though a top attorney probably could have produced a more favorable result in court. Those things said, his play did drop off after signing the big deal. The Seahawks need more from him.

I do not have post-contract stats, but lots of players have performed at a high level after signing fat deals. Walter Jones, Matt Hasselbeck and Julian Peterson come to mind. It probably depends on the person to a large degree.