Prototypical 4-3 defensive ends generally have the burst to disrupt running plays in the backfield and get to the quarterback, but things are different for the ends (5-techniques) in 3-4 defenses.
Three-man fronts prefer defensive ends who can set the edge against the run and push the pocket. They are more about power, whereas 4-3 ends are about speed, and that distinction is why 3-4 teams can and do look to college defensive tackles to find themselves help on the outside.
Here's a look at five players who look capable of making that transition. All have spent the bulk of their careers lining up at defensive tackle but could slide outside in the NFL. Three project as fringe first-round picks, one is a sleeper prospect, and one is an underclassmen to keep an eye on.
Kendall Reyes, Connecticut (Scouts Inc. Grade: 90)
Reyes might end up fitting best on the inside in a four-man front, where he has the quick feet and hands to develop into an effective 3-technique. He doesn't have prototypical height for a 5-technique candidate, which raises concerns about his ability to locate the ball when locked up with NFL tackles.
However, his height shouldn't be a deal-breaker for 3-4 defenses. For starters, his upper-body strength and arm length both appear above-average. Secondly, he has lined up on the edge for the Huskies and even rushed the passer from a two-point stance. Finally, consider that Pittsburgh Steelers DE Ziggy Hood is an inch shorter than Reyes. Hood doesn't put up big numbers, but his contributions to one of the best defenses in the league validate taking him late in the first round of the 2009 draft.
Devon Still, Penn State (89)
Still is the only player on this list I have not seen line up at defensive end, and he's more than capable of making immediate contributions at defensive tackle in a base 4-3 defense. I am, however, confident he could make a successful transition to defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
At 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds, he has the long arms, upper-body strength and hand speed to develop into an effective two-gap defender. His ability to get down the line of scrimmage jumped out on film against Iowa and Nebraska. And although he doesn't have the closing speed teams covet in their edge rushers, he has the active hands and strength to provide some pressure.
Jared Crick, Nebraska (87)
Crick graded out as a first-round pick before a torn pectoral muscle brought an abrupt end to his season and his college career. If he recovers fully and shows teams his durability isn't an immediate concern Crick could move back into the first round discussion, because at 6-4 and 286 pounds he may be the most player on this list.
Crick is strong enough to line up at defensive tackle in a four-man front, has enough athletic ability to line up at left defensive end in a four-man front, and is arguably at his best at end in a three-man line. Add in the fact that he has experience as a 5-technique and has the ideal frame for the position, and 3-4 teams should have little worry about him making the transition.
Sleeper: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati (No grade)
Wolfe has been one of the most productive interior pass-rushers in the country, and he has the skill set to break into the defensive tackle rotation for a 4-3 team in the NFL. He's not be as explosive as some of the other players on this list, but he uses his hands well and is capable of countering when he doesn't win with his first move.
Wolfe is also lining up at defensive end in some of the Bearcats' three man fronts. At 6-5 and 300 pounds, he can set the edge and hold his ground against most offensive tackles. He could develop into a valuable role player for a 3-4 team that can play him on the outside on running downs and kick him inside on pass-heavy downs. We don't have a full evaluation on Wolfe at this point, but he's certainly gaining steam in scouting circles.
Underclassman: Johnathan Hankins*, Ohio State
This 335-pound true sophomore is a rare talent and contributes about as much as a defensive tackle can. Hankins lined up at defensive tackle, defensive end and even dropped into underneath coverage during the Purdue game. There's still plenty of room for improvement, starting with his endurance, but he's big enough to shed some weight without losing his ability to hold his ground against the run. Getting into better shape could also improve his already above-average quickness and agility.