AFC West puts on defensive shift

April, 17, 2009
4/17/09
12:28
PM ET
 
  Christian Petersen/Getty Images and Derick Hingle/Icon SMI
  Rey Maualuga and Tyson Jackson are two players expected to be taken in the first round of the draft who could be good fits for Denver or Kansas City.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

After dumping the 4-3 scheme used by previous regimes, the new leaders in both Denver and Kansas City are hoping for fast results by adopting the 3-4 defense. A new era begins in the AFC West.

Still, the transition might not be easy. Both teams will try to fit existing players into the system and identify new ones to add. The 3-4 defense features three defensive linemen and four linebackers as opposed to the more traditional four defensive linemen and three linebackers set.

Expect the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs to try to stockpile defenders who can play in the 3-4 in the April 25-26 draft. Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said he thinks Denver will dedicate "95 percent" of its draft class to players who can play in the 3-4. Denver is in great shape to add young talent with five picks in the first 84 choices, some as a result of the Jay Cutler trade. Kansas City has started the transition process with the additions of veteran linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas.

Who might be among the top-flight draft prospects for 3-4 schemes? Possible targets include former Boston College defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace, former USC linebacker Rey Maualuga and ex-LSU defensive lineman Tyson Jackson. Will those players be ready to make an immediate impact in the 3-4 defense? Williamson said he believes both the Broncos and the Chiefs might have difficulty making the adjustment to the 3-4, which has long been used by the San Diego Chargers.

"The two teams are starting from scratch in a lot of ways as they try to move to the 3-4 along with San Diego," Williamson said. "They may have to slowly transition to it because it takes some of these young kids a couple of years before they can make a difference in that scheme. Not enough kids play the 3-4 in college, so it takes time. If Denver and Kansas City think they are going to get a quick fix, it may be tough. And San Diego now has more competition because two more teams in its own division will be looking for 3-4 players."

 
  Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  It's unknown how players drafted to play in a 4-3 defense, such as Kansas City's Glenn Dorsey, will perform in a 3-4.

Williamson thinks there are some high-profile players in Denver and Kansas City who may have trouble flourishing in the new system. In Denver, Williamson pointed out linebacker D.J. Williams, who last September signed a big extension to stay in Denver. In Kansas City, Williamson believes defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey is not suited for the 3-4 defense. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall draft pick last season. Williamson thinks Kansas City should try to trade Dorsey. New Kansas City coach Todd Haley, who brought creative defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast with him from Arizona, is not worried, though.

"I think he's got a lot of great versatility, especially where we are transitioning potentially to this 3-4," Haley said of Dorsey. "I think there are some roles in there for him where he could have more of an attacking role."

One reason the AFC West will be a 3-4 defense division is because of the heavy influence of the New England Patriots that has invaded the division.

Former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach in Denver and brought in former San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan to run the 3-4 defense that the Patriots used. Kansas City is moving to the 3-4 defense because former Patriots executive Scott Pioli is the new general manager there.

The Chargers are interested to see how the division will be affected by 75 percent of the teams using the 3-4 scheme.

"It gives you flexibility as a defense," San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said. "You can show different looks and we have found it very useful. ... We're seeing Denver and Kansas City moving to the 3-4 as they start a new beginning. It will be very interesting to see how everything works with nearly every team in the division using the scheme."

McDaniels said the key in Denver will be versatility and flexibility in the scheme. He said the speed of the 3-4 transition may depend on the personnel the team picks up in the draft.

"There are a few boards at our facility and they're put up different ways," McDaniels said. "Because I think it's really important that we see where we finish this spring, and head into training camp in terms of our personnel. I don't think we can really sit there today and say, 'That looks perfect.' In terms of playing them as a 3-4 or as a 4-3, I think we have guys that can do a lot of things. Versatility is a huge thing for what we're going to try to do on defense."

The transition will not be easy, but the process begins in earnest with the draft for both Denver and Kansas City.

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