Top 10 Hybrid Prospects

NFL Draft expert Dion Caputi takes a few minutes to star in our ongoing TOP 10 Prospect series. Caputi shares his top prospects who could switch from defensive end to outside linebacker at the next level.

Annually, it seems, there is is a new team (or teams) who make the conversion to a base 3-4 front defense. With that conversion typically follows an overhaul in personnel -- starting, of course, with the pass rushing outside linebacker position. Any successful 3-4 defense needs a conversion-type rush linebacker which typically will possess the body and frame of a defense end, but the athleticism and skill-set of a linebacker. Every April these players are a coveted breed in the draft, so lets take a closer look at my top 10 crop of potential 3-4 base "conversion" defenders from 2012 NFL Draft class:

1. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina (6'1", 264 lbs.)
A versatile defender with natural pass rushing ability, Ingram has value in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. In tape evaluation, he is a high-motor rusher whose semi-stubby frame allows him to gain leverage on some bigger blockers. Throughout the past two seasons, Melvin Ingram has accumulated a total of 76 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, and 19.0 sacks. Although he is two inches taller, Ingram possesses a similar skill-set to that of Denver Broncos defensive end/3-4 outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil. The productive Gamecocks defender carries a mid-first round grade and top 15-pick projection.



2. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (6'1", 272 lbs.)
Although he has the frame and versatility to put his hand in the dirt and play as a defensive end in 4-3 base fronts, Upshaw's natural position at the next level is as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Featuring multiple-years of experience playing in a 3-4 defense under Nick Saban at Alabama, Upshaw is a big, physical defender with quality short-area burst. Two highly productive seasons in which he totaled a combined 103 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, and 15.5 sacks, the All-American established himself as a leader on the Crimson Tide's national title-winning defense. He is a touch stiff in the hips, but following extensive film-review I do not anticipate it inhibiting him moving forward. One of the best, safest pure hybrid defensive end/linebacker-types of the 2012 class. Courtney Upshaw grades out as a mid-first round prospect and a top 20-pick projection.


3. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois (6'3", 261 lbs.)
The decision to enter the 2012 draft as an underclassman certainly was made easier after Mercilus lead the NCAA in sacks last season with 16.0. Featuring quality pass rushing technique and physical skills, the Illini defender still has significant question marks about potentially standing up and playing in space as a 3-4 outside linebacker. However, Mercilus made a believer out of a number of evaluators at his pro day workout, where he displayed improved fluidity and lateral movement. The "one-year wonder" tag won't be shaken during the evaluation process, but I will say that it's hard to argue that 16.0 sacks and a whopping 22.5 tackles for loss in a single campaign is luck or scheming. The 2011 Ted Hendricks Award winner (as the top defensive end in college football) is raw, occasionally plays at a higher pad-level, and will be a bit of a project, but possesses notable upside and plenty of remaining untapped ability. While Whitney Mercilus grades out as a late first round selection, his pro day workout pushed him into mid-first round consideration. One of the more intriguing possible conversion players who may be safer as a 4-3 base defensive end, but holds legitimate potential as a stand-up 3-4 rush 'backer.


4. Nick Perry, USC (6'2", 271 lbs.)
A primarily speed-rushing edge defender with good get-off burst and lateral quickness. Elite-level first step and utilizes his hands well when engaging with blockers. Although Perry is slightly raw and isn't overly reliable as a run defender, he's a high potential athlete who can play in space. Projects well as a standup, 3-4 edge rushing linebacker. He added weight in the pre-draft process and looked a bit stiffer at the NFL Combine than he did on tape, but is still in the process of properly maximizing his frame. In three seasons at Southern Cal, the 2009 Freshman All-American has accumulated 103 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, and 21.5 sacks. A former blue chip high school recruit, Perry carries a grade in the mid-late first round range while his draft pick projection falls around the 20 range.


5. Andre Branch, Clemson (6'4", 259 lbs.)
While lacking a top notch first step, Andre Branch proved at the NFL Combine that he has the speed and fluidity in movement to play in space as a 3-4 outside linebacker. A down-lineman in college who can be streaky in production, Branch still exhibited big-play ability in important games against Auburn, Virginia Tech, and South Carolina. As a senior he was regarded as a leader on the Clemson defense and follows in an annually growing line of quality pass rushers from the school. He steadily developed over the course of his college career and really produced in 2011 with 85 tackles, 17.0 tackles for loss, and 10.0 sacks. Andre Branch grades out as a late first round-early second round selection and projects to be drafted in similar range.


6. Shea McClellin, Boise State (6'3", 260 lbs.)
A college defensive end with good short-area quickness and bend around the edge. McClellin developed as a disruptive player who often made plays in the backfield as a junior and senior. His movement skills and ability to locate the football together offer plenty of indication that he can stand up and rush from a 3-4 outside linebacker spot, as well as play in space. Over the past three seasons the intelligent and hard working Boise State star defender managed 115 tackles, 31.0 tackles for loss, and 18.5 sacks. Shea McClellin grades out as a mid-late second round prospect and a likely mid-second round projection on draft day.


7. Vinny Curry, Marshall (6'3", 266 lbs.)
Vinny Curry is one of the more unheralded overall prospects of the 2012 class. Rushes with a good blend of finesse and power, he has the strong base and low-pad level to be disruptive on interior (C-gap) rushes or the first step and bend to turn the corner. While Curry's skill set is best suited to playing as a downed defensive end in a 4-3 base front, his agility and lateral movement suggests he could be a formidable 3-4 edge rusher as well. After a very impressive Senior Bowl performance and nice Combine, Curry has cemented my high second round grade, and is likely to be selected in mid-second round range on day two of the draft.


8. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma (6'2", 253 lbs.)
Lewis is a notable talent with a true conversion skill-set. A college defensive end with an impressive blend of strength, short-area quickness, and explosion. The underclassman left Oklahoma early after a productive junior campaign in which he totaled 59 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. Possessing a thickly built frame with room to continue growing, the Sooner standout is a nice athlete with movement skills in space and a knack for locating the football. Ronnell Lewis has plenty of untapped ability and just began the next step of his development in 2011; drawing a solid second round grade and projection, he should parlay a deep skill-set into a nice NFL career.


9. Bruce Irvin, West Virginia (6'2", 245 lbs.)
An unconventional conversion prospect who's body type would suggest he's more of a natural 4-3 linebacker, but his shear pass rushing ability has 3-4 teams taking interest throughout the evaluation process. In two seasons with the Mountaineers, the former junior college transfer amassed sack totals of 14.0 in 2010 and 8.5 in 2011, along with 61 tackles and 29.0 tackles for loss combined over the two campaigns. Irvin has natural athleticism and can move with fluidity in space but is not an ideal run and cover linebacker. Provided he bulks up and fills out his frame, adding more upper body strength, he has legitimate upside as a a 3-4 edge rushing linebacker. Certainly a project, Bruce Irvin still grades out as a quality late second to early third round prospect with a third round pick projection.


10. Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy (6'2", 264 lbs.)
Impressive initial burst and lateral quickness on game tape. Massaquoi is a natural edge rusher with true conversion capabilities. While his run defense is the weaker aspect of his game, his prowess in getting to the quarterback is obvious on film. Good bend around the edge and a solid understanding of leverage. Coming from a consistent and heralded line of talented Troy pass rushers, Massaquoi is a dynamic space-player who's athleticism will allow him to rush from a variety of spots. A third round grade and third to fourth round draft pick projection, Jonathan Massaquoi will provide a team with great value if selected on day three.



Honorable Mention(s):

Chandler Jones, Syracuse (6'4", 266 lbs.)
Skill-set best suits him to play with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 base end, but as a possible conversion player Chandler Jones possesses top shelf athletic ability and physical length. Some raw aspects to his game, but the younger brother of UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones has one of the highest ceilings of any prospect in the 2012 draft class. A late first round talent who grades out as a second round prospect and projection.

Darius Fleming, Notre Dame (6'1", 245 lbs.)
Fleming is an interesting prospect. A raw athlete with unpolished (but high-potential) pass rushing skills, he is an experienced player with a good production over the past three seasons. A thick linebacker with good movement skills, Fleming displays good shoulder-dip and strength at the point of attack when rushing. Like Bruce Irvin, Fleming must fill out his frame a little more but has displayed natural ability as an edge rusher. Through evaluation Darius Fleming has drawn a fourth round grade and projects to be selected in the fourth to fifth round range.



The mold of the conversion player seems to change with every passing year, but with a developing variety amongst 3-4 base defenses, there's now spots for players who were once considered "tweeners" who did not truly fit in either 4-3 or 3-4 fronts. In 2012, we not only call the majority of these players versatile -- we call them conversions.

Caputi's NFL Draft material courtesy of Pariots Insider at Scout.com

Dion Caputi is a writer at the National Football Post and College | NFL Draft analyst. You can also follow him on Twitter @nfldraftupdate

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