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3-4 defense making a comeback

I covered my first Indianapolis scouting combine in 1990. Change was in the cold air.

Jimmy Johnson was in his second year of turning around the Dallas Cowboys, and his impact on the game would be huge. At the University of Miami, he had established an exciting 4-3 defense. Johnson stressed speed. He had aggressive, penetrating defensive linemen, fast linebackers and cornerbacks who could match up in man coverage.

The NFL was coming off a defensive era in which Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor sparked a trend toward 3-4 schemes. In 1990, 18 of the NFL's 28 teams were in the 3-4. Then Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox drafted defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy out of Miami to lead the move to a 4-3. The success of Kennedy and Johnson's Cowboys encouraged other teams to make similar switches.

By 1994, only five teams were using the 3-4, and the number dropped to four by 1995.

Change could be in the air again at this year's combine, which starts Tuesday. Six of the seven head-coaching hires this offseason have defensive backgrounds. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could move the Chicago Bears from a 4-3 to a 3-4, while coach Rex Ryan in Buffalo and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Denver are expected to do the same.

That would bring the number of 3-4 defenses in 2015 to 17, the most since 1990. This will have a huge impact on the 2015 draft.

The first order of business for the coaches switching to a 3-4 is figuring out what to do with the veterans on the roster. The Bears, for example, invested heavily in two defensive ends last offseason, $8 million a year for Jared Allen and $7 million a year for Lamarr Houston. New coach John Fox and Fangio must determine if and how those veterans can fit in a 3-4. The Bears may want one or both to move to outside linebacker. Shea McClellin, a first-round pick in 2012, hasn't worked out in the Bears' 4-3, but he may be a better fit in a 3-4.

Next for the Bears will be figuring out what to do with the seventh pick in the first round and whether it should be used on a 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker. At the combine, Fox and Fangio will be studying Randy Gregory of Nebraska, Shane Ray of Missouri, Dante Fowler Jr. of Florida and maybe Vic Beasley of Clemson.

If the Bears switch to a 3-4, four of the draft's first seven picks will be by teams using the 3-4 (assuming no trades are made). Each will be studying whether 343-pound Danny Shelton of the University of Washington is the next Haloti Ngata. If so, he could be a top-seven pick.

Phillips shouldn't have much trouble converting the Broncos' defense because he has Von Miller, one of the best defenders in the game, as a strongside linebacker. What the Broncos have to determine is whether their current defensive linemen can convert to a 3-4 or if they have to look at ends such as Florida State's Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. and Oregon's Arik Armstead as early-round considerations.

The 3-4 coaches will tell you it's not that big of a deal going to that formation because most defenses use a four-man line in passing situations, which accounts for almost two-thirds of the plays. Phillips, in fact, says the only difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 is that one edge defender doesn't put his hand on the ground on certain plays.

Most scouts believe this is a good draft for pass-rushers and defensive linemen. They can start to confirm those observations in Indy this week.

From the inbox

Q: Is it reasonable to think that the NFL should build a Super Bowl-specific stadium (think dome or retractable roof in Canton)? Personally, I think it would be a great idea as it would be the only way to create a truly neutral field. It removes the possibility of a home game for a conference champion and takes away the possibility of weather being an advantage for one team or being a detriment to a good game.

Michael in Olympia, Washington

A: If the NFL would build a Super Bowl-specific stadium, it would be in Los Angeles, not Canton, Ohio. The reason is revenue. A stadium in Canton wouldn't have an NFL team. For the NFL to invest in any kind of stadium, it would need to have one or two NFL tenants to make it work. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton is going through a major venture to make it a major destination. The $250 million project includes a high-end hotel, a sports and entertainment complex and a conference center. You'll see some NFL drafts moved to Canton in the future. I can't see the NFL ever going to a Super Bowl-specific stadium. Cities bid for the Super Bowl, which generates revenue. Owners like to have the Super Bowl move around.

Q: Would this be legal for the Seahawks to do: Marshawn Lynch signs a $7 million deal for next year, and then Paul Allen donates $3 million to Lynch's foundation (as opposed to give Lynch $10 million a year outright). Or would this be against the salary-cap rules? Can players be compensated in ways other than financially to help ease up cap room?

Dallas in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

A: That is a clear salary-cap violation. Terms of all contracts and all agreements have to be reported to the league and the NFL Players Association, and the salary terms must follow specific rules. The reason is the salary cap. To lure any player to extend a contract with anything in addition to base salary, signing bonus and incentives is outlawed.

Q: I noticed you wrote this in your mailbag column under Short Takes: The league won't go extra overtime sessions in the regular season because of the injury risk. Please explain to me why in the world they would ever want to go to an 18-game schedule? They can't have it both ways. If they are so worried about injuries, they shouldn't expand to 18 games -- ever.

Dale in Austin, Minnesota

A: You have to understand that owners try to have it both ways. Going to 18 games means more money for the owners and the players. The players won't go for it because of the injury concerns, but the owners will continue to try. Sure, the NFL is concerned about injuries, but it will ignore those thoughts if it can get two additional regular-season games at the expense of two preseason games.

Q: Has the NFL ever considered the idea of giving compensatory draft picks to teams with losing records (especially ones with multiyear losing streaks)? An additional draft pick granted in the round that matches their number of wins would certainly help losing teams become competitive faster.

Joey in Jacksonville, Florida

A: I don't know if the NFL has ever considered such an idea, but it would help bad teams get better. Winning teams tend to benefit from the current compensatory system. Baltimore and Green Bay, for example, have been loading up on compensatory draft choices for years. Good teams tend to have better players hit the market, and as long as those teams lose more players than they sign as unrestricted free agents, they get compensatory picks. To make a change like you suggest, it would have to be collectively bargained. I don't see it happening, but your idea would be a good one for the losing teams.

Q: If the Lions re-sign Ndamukong Suh, would it be possible they go after a running back in the first round or would they still look for a tackle to replace Nick Fairley assuming they cannot re-sign both. Or can you see an outside-the-box pick like offensive line in that spot?

Ryan in Henderson, Nevada

A: If the Lions keep Suh, they won't necessarily have to take any one specific position. I can't see them keeping both Suh and Fairley, so they can try to get a defensive tackle in the first three rounds. They still have C.J. Mosley. And don't forget that even though Jason Jones plays end, he started his career as a tackle. If a good defensive end is available, they could take him and think about moving Jones back to tackle. Teams are shying away from running backs in the first round. The only way the Lions take one is if Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin or Todd Gurley of Georgia is on the board. The Lions have enough depth at running back.

Q: Is it feasible that Greg Hardy could serve a "suspension" by giving back the equivalent of six game checks from this past season? He has missed an entire season, so a case could be made that six more games would be excessive.

Darby in upstate New York

A: That would be a fairer penalty than making him miss more games. He missed 15 games last year but kept his $13.116 million salary. Missing checks at this point might make more sense than missing more games. The league has to look into whether there was a financial settlement that ended his court case. North Carolina law mandates that the defendant is not guilty after winning a case on appeal. With the victim not showing up for the appeal, Hardy has been cleared by the state of the charges against him. Having him miss a total of 21 games might be considered excessive.