(A series looking at some of the top players at various positions leading up to the NFL Draft, set for April 27-29)
The need for edge rushers is such that 29 of the 52 defensive linemen who showed up at the NFL Scouting Combine were also put through conversion drills to assess their potential as stand-up outside linebackers.
The Steelers aren't the only team continually looking to transition hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends at the next level.
It can and has been done. And such a position switch need not necessarily prove life altering in the process, in the estimation of NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Mike Mayock.
"You have to be a hellacious pass rusher, you have to set a physical edge and you have to drop into coverage," Mayock said of the boxes that must be checked by would-be OLBs. "And by far the least important is the drop into coverage."
"That sounds like our meetings in New England," agreed NFL Network analyst Willie McGinist.
Getting pressure from the edge is that important a proposition.
Garrett (6-4 1/4, 272 pounds) is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick and the purported best edge rusher in the draft, whether he winds up rushing from the defensive end or outside linebacker positions. He was clocked at 4.64 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and ran a 4.61 at Texas A&M's Pro Day. Garrett also had a 41-inch vertical leap, broad jumped 10'8" and bench pressed 225 pounds 33 times. Mayock assessed Garrett's tape as "really special," even though some critics have suggested Garrett took some downs off in 2016. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein described Garrett as having "rare explosiveness and the fluid movement skills and agility of an NBA shooting guard."
What you see is apparently what you get with Barnett (6-3, 259). "He's not going to wow you in shorts but when you put the pads on he never stops, never quits," NFL Network and NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "He's a tenacious pass rusher. I think he's somewhere in the middle of the first round." Barnett had at least 10 sacks in all three of his seasons at Tennessee and 33 for his career (one more than Reggie White). Mayock detailed a play Barnett made against Texas A&M "where they ran motion and the defensive backs didn't adjust. (Barnett) realized it as a defensive end, bumped out and covered a wide receiver 25 yards down the field. Never seen anything like it." Zierlein said "there could be coordinators who view (Barnett) as an early-down outside linebacker in a 3-4 with the ability to put his hand on the ground in sub-packages."
Mayock said McKinley, a defensive end at UCLA, "needs to be kind of that 3-4 outside linebacker," in the NFL. A junior college transfer in 2014, McKinley (6-2, 250) had 17 sacks in three seasons with the Bruins (10 in 2016, along with 18 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles). Mayock emphasized watching tape of a play McKinley made against Washington State where McKinley rushed the quarterback and then chased a screen pass down from 20 yards away. "I don't write down a lot of 'wows,' but that was 'wow,'" Mayock said. "He's relentless. His hustle and production is outstanding."
J.J. Watt's brother had to endure injuries (two knee surgeries) and a position switch from offense to defense and played just two seasons at Wisconsin (one as a starter). But he made his 2016 memorable with 17 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks. Mayock's take: "The DNA thing is interesting. Like his brother he has really strong hands. He can control a tackle with his hands while he finds the football." Dane Brugler's 2017 NFL Draft Guide also likes the bloodlines: "His determination, work habits and competitive drive mirror his older brother and will win over an NFL coaching staff. As long as the medical checks out, Watt projects as a starting rush end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme."
Harris (6-2 3/4, 253) did some outside linebacker-type things as a defensive end at Missouri. "He dropped a lot against Kentucky, made some plays that were really good," Mayock said. "I liked the fact you could see an athletic drop." Harris didn't play football until his junior season of high school and was recruited by Boston College to play basketball. He ended up as a two-year starter in his three seasons at Missouri. Jeremiah saw enough at the Combine to declare Harris "an all-day first-round pick." Added McGinist during the Combine, "He's making some money for himself. He's real natural at these drills. Either he has somebody coaching him really well or he's just a pretty good athlete. I think it's both."
The 2016 Draft, OLB
Number drafted: 36 (ILB included)
Picks by round: 2 in the first; 7 in the second; 4 in the third; 7 in the fourth; 4 in the fifth; 6 in the sixth; 6 in the seventh
Highest pick: Leonard Floyd, Round 1, ninth overall, Chicago Bears
Impact pick: Minnesota's De'Vondre Campbell went in the fourth round, 115th overall, to the Falcons (yes, them again). Campbell started 10 of 11 games played in the regular season and all three of Atlanta's postseason games, including Super Bowl LI.