All 15 NFL 3-4 defenses ranked by weight (plus Falcons takeaways)

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

About half the NFL's teams use 3-4 fronts for their base defenses. How does the Falcons' new front compare, and how much bigger does Mike Nolan want Atlanta to get?

The Atlanta Falcons are going to use a 3-4 base defense more often. Like every other 3-4 team, they'll also use four-man fronts, spend a lot of time in nickel packages, and use both one-gap and two-gap assignments. But it's still an identity change that demands specialized players at nose tackle and outside linebacker and slightly different player types than before throughout the rest of the front seven.

So now that the Falcons are in a new neighborhood, let's take a look around.

The starting weight breakdown for every team listed as running the 3-4 on depth charts at team sites and NFL.com (which don't all necessarily include the latest additions for each team), plus the Falcons (notes below the chart on the players I used for the Falcons' lineup):

Total pounds Total DL Total LBs DE NT DE OLB ILB ILB OLB
Packers 2,009 975 1,034 337 338 300 285 242 242 265
Jets 2,003 959 1,044 294 350 315 290 239 250 265
Ravens 1,987 962 1,025 315 330 317 260 245 248 272
Browns 1,984 985 999 320 335 330 255 234 240 270
Chiefs 1,945 940 1,005 288 346 306 258 230 242 275
Cardinals 1,945 917 1,028 300 327 290 285 230 250 263
Redskins 1,943 946 997 318 318 310 260 242 238 257
Eagles 1,939 918 1,021 309 309 300 264 247 240 270
NFL average 1,938.13 930.67 1,007.47 306 (all DEs) 322.6 306 (all DEs) 262.83 (all OLBs) 240.9 (all ILBs) 240.9 (all ILBs) 262.83 (all OLBs)
Falcons 1,923 936 987 300 340 296 251 232 244 260
Colts 1,919 946 973 318 320 308 250 245 232 246
Saints 1,917 917 1,000 324 306 287 258 246 241 255
Chargers 1,911 903 1,008 300 303 300 265 241 242 260
Steelers 1,900 906 994 288 320 298 248 250 234 262
49ers 1,878 872 1,006 290 297 285 259 242 240 265
Texans 1,869 878 991 289 300 289 254 235 244 258

The Falcons will likely be small at linebacker for year one of the 3-4, but with size to spare where it's needed most: nose tackle.

As for which players are counted here, the starting defensive line is easy. Paul Soliai (340) is the starting man in the middle, with Tyson Jackson (300) and Jonathan Babineaux (296) the best-equipped at end. Corey Peters (305) should also get plenty of snaps.

Linebacker's more complicated. Let's plug in Khalil Mack (251) at rush backer (this position has a million different names, depending on the scheme; I'm not sure what defensive coordinator Mike Nolan calls it). That's actually the only one of the four spots that we can fill without much argument, and we're filling it with a guy who's not even on the team. You can do that on the internet.

Drafting Anthony Barr (255) instead of Mack wouldn't change things much (though the Pac-12's pass-rusher record would make some of us nervous), while somehow winding up with Jadeveon Clowney (266) would add about 15 pounds.

I'd think the default choices would then be Kroy Biermann (260) at sam and Sean Weatherspoon (244) and Paul Worrilow (232) on the inside, with Worrilow filling the mike role. But Osi Umenyiora (255), Akeem Dent (239), Joplo Bartu (230), and all those young guys who never play would have cases to make for one spot or another.

Next: is this the kind of size Nolan wants? Here's the recent history of his 3-4 defenses' sizes -- as far as I can tell, he began preferring the 3-4 in 2000:

Total pounds Total DL Total LBs DE NT DE OLB ILB ILB OLB
2010 Dolphins 1,975 958 1,017 305 340 313 260 250 250 257
2011 Dolphins 1,965 958 1,007 305 340 313 260 240 250 257
2009 Broncos 1,945 919 1,026 305 314 300 274 242 250 260
2004 Ravens 1,911 886 1,025 286 310 290 270 245 250 260
2008 49ers 1,910 935 975 330 320 285 240 240 240 255
Nolan average 1,906.64 906.55 1,000.09 292.09 (all DEs) 317.27 292.09 (all DEs) 254.2 (all OLBs) 247.6 (all ILBs) 247.6 (all ILBs) 254.2 (all OLBs)
2003 Ravens 1,906 886 1,020 286 310 290 270 245 250 255
2007 49ers 1,901 917 984 305 320 292 240 249 245 250
2000 Jets 1,869 875 994 285 305 285 258 244 250 242
2006 49ers 1,867 891 976 291 321 279 240 249 245 242
2005 49ers 1,864 877 987 291 300 286 235 242 245 265
2002 Ravens 1,860 870 990 270 310 290 240 245 250 255

Two trends suggest the Falcons' 3-4 defense will get bigger over the next few years.

First, Nolan's 3-4 defenses as a whole have grown over the last decade, despite football players in general remaining about the same size. His Dolphins fronts, which featured Soliai, averaged about seven pounds more per player than his current Falcons front.

But also note that his 49ers and Ravens defenses each increased in size every year for seven combined years. In Nolan's first years, the 49ers and Ravens would've ranked as the NFL's smallest 2013-2014 3-4 defenses. In two years, his Ravens front added 51 pounds, in large (large!) part by moving 270-pound Adalius Thomas from defensive end to linebacker. The 49ers gained 46 pounds, most of it by moving 330-pound backup nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to defensive end.

The Falcons' 2014 front could get bigger by going with Dent over Worrilow, who'll likely need to gain significant weight without losing performance in order to remain a starter -- at his rookie size, he'd be one of the NFL's smallest 3-4 linebackers. Starting Biermann and Umenyiora at outside linebacker, in the event of not drafting a first-rounder for that spot, would add five to 10 pounds.

And finally, Nolan's average 3-4 defense (which shouldn't be considered Nolan's ideal 3-4 defense), compared to the current NFL 3-4 average:

Total pounds Total DL Total LB DE DT OLB ILB
NFL average 1,938.13 930.67 1,007.47 306 322.6 262.83 240.9
Nolan average 1,906.64 906.55 1,000.09 292.09 317.27 254.2 247.6

This is skewed a bit by how relatively small many of his early defensive ends were, but it's definitely useful at linebacker.

Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr might be better fits for the Falcons than for other 3-4 teams.

Nolan's defenses have tended to favor speed over power at outside linebacker, but with bigger inside linebackers than most. This ends up meaning players of about the same size throughout the linebacker corps. The difference in size between his inside and outside linebackers (seven pounds on average, and none at all in some cases) isn't as pronounced as in other 3-4 systems (the current NFL average among 3-4 starters: a 22-pound difference, with the Packers and Jets more like 30).

This makes sense, considering how versatile he asks all his defenders to be. It also suggests the 255-poundish Mack and Barr might be much better fits for the Falcons than they would be for other 3-4 teams. And that the Falcons might draft a big inside linebacker in the middle rounds as well -- maybe Stanford's 6'2, 245-pound Shayne Skov, a spirited 3-4 vet and a redshirt senior captain.

There's more to a defense than size, but a look at the raw numbers shows both where the Falcons are and where they might be headed.

"In my opinion, you try to get the biggest people on the field," Nolan said in 1993 ... about the topic of flipping the Giants from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

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