Is Orakpo the Packers' answer at linebacker?

GREEN BAY -- Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin just led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl XLIII title, so they know a thing or two about the personnel it takes to make a 3-4 defense work.

GREEN BAY -- Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin just led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl XLIII title, so they know a thing or two about the personnel it takes to make a 3-4 defense work.

And what words of wisdom do the Steelers' director of football operations and head coach have for the Green Bay Packers as they search for linebacker help -- in part from prospects who played defensive end in college -- in the 2009 NFL draft, which begins Saturday?

Good luck.

"I think the outside linebackers, the hybrids, are the most difficult guys to evaluate and draft because what you're looking at (on film) and what you're asking them to do are two different things," Tomlin said at the annual NFL meetings last month. "I think at the end of the day great defenses are about gap responsibility and effort, but there are fundamentally some differences schematically (in the 3-4), things you have to acknowledge. And the conversion of college 4-3 ends is probably central to that.

"They're not (too) hard to find, but they are scarce. Particularly as more teams play a 3-4 defense, there will be an increasing demand on the body types, and that is no secret."


Colbert said that of the existing players on the roster, "the hardest transition is for the 'tweener defensive end who is 260, 265 pounds" -- sound like anyone you know, Aaron Kampman? -- but sounded the most troubling alarm when asked about the challenges associated with integrating a draft pick who's never played in a 3-4 into the system.

"It's always a challenge for us, but we're used to it now," Colbert said. "When we look at 260- or 255-pound guy, (we ask), 'Can they make the transition to do the things they need to do from a coverage standpoint?' That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent, and it also reminds you you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop.

"Everyone who has been in our system as outside linebackers, it usually took them a minimum of two years and usually 3 to 4 years before they were ready to contribute."

The Packers, of course, don't have the luxury of waiting that long for someone to develop, not with Kampman converting from end to left outside linebacker and the right outside linebacker spot up in the air. While Packers GM Ted Thompson doesn't draft for need per se, he should be able to find an immediate impact player at No. 9.

The top candidate for conversion is Texas' Brian Orakpo, who could be available when the Packers pick ninth overall -- and may have set an NFL scouting combine record for use of the word versatile.

"The good thing about is I'm versatile. So it really doesn't matter. I fit well in both schemes," said Orakpo, who had 11.5 sacks as a senior last year. "That's very important because a lot of teams are going to a 3-4 scheme and you still have the teams that are 4-3. A versatile guy is a guy who can be very versatile and can play any position."

Penn State's Aaron Maybin, Florida State's Everette Brown and Northern Illinois' Larry English are the other top 'tweeners in a draft Colbert calls "very strong (for) defensive ends that are possible linebackers," while Wake Forest's Aaron Curry is a can't-miss traditional linebacker prospect, followed by USC threesome Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis.

Still, with roughly a dozen of the NFL's 32 teams running a version of the 3-4 defense, the premium will be on how effectively teams can project prospects to positions they've never really played. While Thompson said the scheme change "really doesn't affect what we are doing," it does change the type of player the Packers will be targeting, along with the other 3-4 teams.


"There's an awful lot of teams playing the 3-4 defense now, certainly compared to 2000 when I came to New England. It was pretty much us and Pittsburgh," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That's made those positions -- the outside linebacker position, the 3-4 nose tackle position -- very competitive. Scheme has an awful lot to do with how those players are evaluated from club to club.''

Quick read on the LBs

The top five

  • Aaron Curry, Wake Forest (6-foot-2, 254 pounds, 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Bright, powerful, instinctive, high-character, Butkus Award winner is the surest thing in the draft; tackling machine had 9.5 career sacks and five career interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
  • Brian Orakpo, Texas (6-3, 260, 4.64): Pass-rushing sensation (11.5 sacks as a senior) has impressive body, athleticism, explosiveness and agility but pass-rush skills still leave lots of room to develop; speed-power combination makes him a natural 3-4 OLB despite playing defensive end in 4-3 college scheme.
  • Rey Maualuga, USC (6-2, 249, 4.86): Strong, physical middle linebacker is sometimes too aggressive and has problems in space, but hard-hitting and passionate about the game; comes with some durability and character questions.
  • Brian Cushing, USC (6-3, 243, 4.69): Oft-injured but hard-hitting and powerful player has been terrific when healthy; lack of pass-rush skill and coverage ability makes him a two-down player but terrific against run.
  • James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (6-2, 244, 4.78): Son of famed pro wrestler "The Animal" is intelligent and instinctive, has great leadership skills and has been extremely durable but might not fit 3-4 scheme; some scouts compare him to Packers' A.J. Hawk, another OSU alum.

The Packers' perspective
No position is more vital to the Packers' 2009 hopes -- and conversion to the 3-4 defense -- than linebacker. Nick Barnett is coming off a torn ACL; converted 4-3 defensive end Aaron Kampman will be challenged to show the same Pro Bowl ability at his new position; 2006 No. 5 overall pick A.J. Hawk is still looking to become an impact player, and Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar, Desmond Bishop and a cast of thousands are auditioning for the other outside spot. If GM Ted Thompson gets lucky, a perfect 3-4 ROLB like Orakpo will fall to him at No. 9. Even if he does, expect another college 'tweener or two to be on the Packers' radar on Day 2, as depth at linebacker is at a premium in the new scheme.

-- Copyright (c) 2009, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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