- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Mike Vrabel out of Ohio State in the third round of the 1997 draft and Vrabel recorded a total of 59 tackles in his four years with the Steelers, making his biggest contributions on special teams. As a result, it came as little surprise when Pittsburgh allowed him to depart through free agency and sign with New England in 2001. That year Vrabel, who had primarily been used as a situational pass rusher in Pittsburgh, recorded 63 total tackles and the first two interceptions of his career, and deflected nine passes. In his seven seasons with the Patriots he has been one of the cornerstones of the New England defense, played a pivotal role in three Super Bowl wins and this year was named to his first Pro Bowl.
So exactly how does a player go from a situational reserve and special teams contributor to one of the most recognized defenders in the game? There are number of different reasons, but the most prominent is the change of scheme. While the Steelers put a great deal of emphasis on applying pressure with their outside linebackers and placed a premium on speed at that position, New England's approach is far more cerebral and varied. The Patriots' willingness to drop Vrabel into coverage and move him around the defensive formation has helped keep opposing offensive lines off balance and set up favorable matchups for him. It's been a perfect fit for Vrabel because of his strong grasp of schemes and positioning.
What does Vrabel have to do with the 2008 draft? While projected first- and second-round picks are expected to perform regardless of which team they sign with, middle-round picks like Vrabel aren't as well-rounded. It is a challenge for NFL front offices to find contributors in that area of the draft, where most of the players are like Vrabel and lack elite natural ability. One of the best ways to successfully accomplish this is to identify players who have the specific tools to excel in their team's scheme. As a result, the chances of a middle-round pick succeeding in the NFL are tied closely to which team drafts him.
Mike Vrabel is an apt comparison for three middle-round 2008 linebackers who would benefit from being drafted into the right scheme.