The Green Bay Packers appear to be breaking with tradition a bit this year. Although the Packers’ defense has lined up in a nickel or dime personnel package on 75% or so of the team’s snaps in the last few seasons, the defense is still functionally a 3-4 in terms of base personnel designations. Interior linemen are mainly classified as defensive tackles, while edge rushers get an outside linebacker designation.
Adding players who play on the edge in a 3-4 defense is typically an exercise in molding college defensive ends into functional stand-up players. While 4-3 ends typically play from a three-point stance, 3-4 backers rush standing up, even in sub packages, and will usually have more coverage responsibilities than ends. With the vast majority of college defenses using a 4-3 alignment, converting those players from end to linebacker is a necessity for 3-4 coaches like Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and linebackers coach Winston Moss.
However, it seems that the Packers’ front office is taking a different approach to bolstering the depth on the edge this year. The Packers drafted one edge rusher, signed another as an undrafted free agent immediately after the draft, and they have reportedly inked a third, Josh Letuligasenoa, to a rookie contract following the weekend’s rookie minicamp. And although the three were acquired in different ways, they have one common thread:
They all have extensive experience rushing from a linebacker position in a 3-4 defense.
Biegel’s tenure with the Wisconsin Badgers is well-known and well-documented. The Wisconsin Rapids native was a natural fit as a college edge rusher, with good size, speed, and bend around the edge. He was one side of a couple of lethal pass-rushing tandems during his time in Madison, first with Joe Schobert and then T.J. Watt, both of whom are now working in the NFL as well.
Mississippi State’s Johnathan Calvin comes from a 3-4 defense as well, and has played both on the line as well as standing up at linebacker. Listed at 6’3” and 266 pounds by the Packers, Calvin could be a candidate to have a similar hybrid role in Green Bay, where they have used players like Datone Jones and Julius Peppers at the “elephant” position, which involves both two-point and three-point stances.
The latest player to come along is Letuligasenoa, who was a 4-3 end in his first two seasons at Cal Poly. However, he transitioned to linebacker when the Mustangs moved to a 3-4 defense in 2015, and he started every game at that position in 2016.
To be sure, the Packers have had success developing college ends into productive edge rushers. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry come to mind, as do a host of other names throughout the last several years who have come through Green Bay. However, this trend towards rookie edge rushers who are familiar with 3-4 schemes and techniques might signal a shift in the team’s scouting tendencies.
This may also be a sign that the Packers recognize the need for young players to contribute sooner rather than later at that position. It should be simpler for these players to pick up the Packers’ defense than it would be for a 4-3 end to stand up and quickly develop his technique on his feet. The Packers will certainly want to get significant production out of their rookie pass rushers in year one, and if players have more familiarity with the rush linebacker position from day one, that gives them a better shot at doing just that.