Tip Sheet: Smaller DEs hitting it big

INDIANAPOLIS -- Despite a stellar career at Louisville, one that included 32 sacks in only 44 games and nominations for several of the college game's premier line awards, defensive end Elvis Dumervil lasted into the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft.

The Denver Broncos ended Dumervil's free fall after 125 players were selected.

These days, the undersized Dumervil (5-foot-11, 248 pounds), who led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009, almost certainly wouldn't remain on the draft board nearly as long.

It's not that little is necessarily the in thing in the NFL, although undersized edge defenders are garnering considerably more respect in today's game. It's that so many teams are employing 3-4 defenses, and now more so than in the past two decades there is a place for the undersized defensive end who can project to "hybrid" linebacker.

Suddenly "tweener" isn't such a bad handle in the league anymore.

"It used to be that, if we didn't have a monopoly on those kinds of guys, we definitely had an edge over most teams, because we played a 3-4 and that kind of defender fit well into the kind of player we wanted [for outside linebackers]," said Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert, here as part of the club's contingent for the annual NFL combine this week. "Now so many teams are playing [the 3-4] as their base, we don't have that same type of advantage.

"A lot of teams are looking for those guys now."

And likely to be unearthing them at the combine sessions, which began Wednesday and will continue through Tuesday.

Thirteen teams now play the 3-4 scheme as their base defense, a dramatic increase from only five years ago, and that has ratcheted up the significance of defensive end prospects once principally considered too small for the rigors of the pro game. The undersized defensive end who can harass the quarterback -- and is capable of dropping off some in coverage and then converting to a "rush end" spot on third down -- is all the rage.

In three of the past four seasons, hybrid 3-4 linebackers -- Dumervil (2009), DeMarcus Ware of Dallas (2008) and San Diego's Shawne Merriman (2006) -- led the NFL in sacks. Before that, the league had nine straight seasons in which the top sacker was a 4-3 defensive lineman. Last season, 10 of the league's top 20 sackers were hybrid linebackers. It's notable that Dumervil, a situational pass-rusher for much of his career, didn't fully flourish until then-coordinator Mike Nolan switched the Broncos to a 3-4 in 2009 and moved him to linebacker.

So players such as Senior Bowl MVP Brandon Graham -- who lined up at end for Michigan but measures just 6-2 and 263 pounds -- is going to command a long look from 3-4 teams because he is a relentless pass-rusher.

Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff likened Graham to another former Michigan end, current Pittsburgh standout LaMarr Woodley, a three-year veteran who has made the transition to outside 'backer in the 3-4 and has 25 sacks in the past two seasons. Not especially big on comparisons, Graham -- who might not project as neatly into the 3-4 model with some teams and is still regarded as an end by some scouts -- doesn't care where he plays.

"End, linebacker, whatever; it really doesn't matter much to me," said Graham, who recorded 29 sacks in the past three seasons. "But if the [proliferation] of 3-4 teams now gives me a better chance to fit in … so be it."

Graham, whom most observers have pegged as a pick in the second half of the first round, is hardly the only prospect here who fits the 3-4 hybrid paradigm. There are 42 ends listed among the 300-plus combine prospects and, although the average unofficial weight (pending the combine weigh-in) is 261.1 pounds, 19 players are 250 pounds or less and 26 weigh 260 pounds or less. Translation: Although the position includes more prospects of 280 pounds or more than most of the recent combines, there are still plenty of viable defenders whose lack of girth precludes them from being full-time ends at the NFL level.

And the size issue aside, many of them are still outstanding prospects.

At least 16 of the 42 ends had seven or more sacks in 2009. Many of them will be graded as outside linebackers by NFL personnel evaluators. And that total doesn't include the outside linebackers regarded as 3-4 hybrid players.

Although this is a deep year for defensive tackles, with two of the interior defenders likely at the top of the overall draft class, defenders who can provide pressure from the edge are still in high demand.

Even some defenders viewed as ends by most teams -- Sergio Kindle (Texas), Jason Pierre-Paul (Florida), Derrick Morgan (Georgia Tech) and Jerry Hughes (TCU), among others -- are graded by some 3-4 clubs primarily as outside linebacker prospects.

"You don't want to be labeled as a guy who can only do this or only do that," said Wisconsin end/linebacker O'Brien Schofield, who had 12 sacks in 2009 but weighs only 238 pounds. "But being able to get to the quarterback is an important skill … and it seems to only be getting more and more important with a lot of teams."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.