Browns rookie edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah has repeatedly downplayed the degree of difficulty he faces in converting from a 4-3 college defensive end to a 3-4 NFL outside linebacker, but veteran players know better.
“That’s a hard transition to make, and I talked to him and I told him that,” Browns inside linebacker Demario Davis said Wednesday after the fifth practice of organized team activities. “But I believe in him. I believe in his character. Our rookies have great character, and I’ve noticed that. So I believe he’ll be able to do it. We have good coaches who are going to work with him, and I think he’ll be all right.”
Browns head of football operations Sashi Brown has said the franchise rejected a number of opportunities to trade down from the first pick of the NFL Draft’s second round last month because it thought Ogbah was too good to forgo at No. 32 overall.
The team fell in love with his size (6-foot-4 1/4 and 273 pounds), speed (4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and production in three seasons at Oklahoma State (28 sacks, four in 2013, 11 in 2014 and 13 in 2015).
“Emmanuel embodies what we want at that position,” Brown said two weeks ago during rookie minicamp. “There’s not a lot of guys at 275 pounds that can run a 4.6 and have his length and speed and size. We also think he’s got a lot of upside. We feel like we can get him even better than what he’s been, and he was tremendously productive.”
But the key to success for Ogbah lies in his ability to adapt to defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4, multi-front scheme. He played primarily with a hand on the ground at Oklahoma State and only dropped into pass coverage about 10-15 times a season. Although rushing the passer is expected to be his calling card with the Browns, he’ll be asked to drop into coverage much more. He’ll also often operate from a standing position instead of a three-point stance.
Ogbah knew a few NFL teams viewed him as a 4-3 defensive end and a few others projected him as a 3-4 outside linebacker. So he spent the months preceding the draft working on dropping into coverage. The training paid off in February at the combine.
“A lot of coaches said actually I looked good dropping,” Ogbah said during rookie minicamp. “I was smooth.”
The Browns have been encouraged in the early stages of Ogbah’s conversion because dropping seems to come naturally to the Nigerian immigrant who grew up playing soccer.
“Not to put an anchor around his neck or a burden on him, but I think collectively we were shocked at his first individual drill at how well he was able to move,” Horton said Wednesday. “You see someone in college do it very little, and in our position drills I think it was a collective smile on the coaches’ faces. He is so much more athletic than what he showed on his tape. We knew he could rush, but there is a big difference between rushing and dropping into space. When he figures it out, I don’t think he knows how good he can be.”
Until he figures it out, Ogbah will likely serve as a pass-rush specialist instead of a three-down linebacker. Veteran Paul Kruger and Nate Orchard, a second-round pick in last year’s draft, have been practicing as the starting outside linebackers throughout OTAs.
Horton made it clear the coaching staff considers Ogbah a work in progress along with two other rookie pass rushers, defensive end Carl Nassib, a third-round pick from Penn State, and outside linebacker Joe Schobert, a fourth-round selection from Wisconsin.
“They have got a long way to go, as most rookies do,” Horton said. “We are drowning them with information right now. What you see is a lot of thinking on the field and not as much action as I want, but it is understandable. It is a totally different system to them, different terminology, and I want them to get it yesterday. They haven’t yet, but they will get it.
“Then they will be able to use their athletic ability, and I like what we have. We have competition at spots where you can’t take a day off because somebody will pass you by. Do I like those guys? I do. Can I say that they are finished products ready to start an NFL game? Absolutely not.”
For his part, Ogbah has been studying 3-4 outside linebackers on film, specifically Denver Broncos four-time Pro Bowler Von Miller, the reigning Super Bowl MVP. If Ogbah can reach a level anywhere near Miller, it would be hard to envision the Browns finishing 28th out of 32 teams with just 29 sacks like they did last season.
“I feel like it’s a lot of pressure. You know?” Ogbah said. “You got drafted high for a reason, so they expect you to come out there and contribute. So I’m doing the best I can to be that person for them.”
It’ll definitely be a challenge, but it’s one the Browns are convinced Ogbah can conquer with coaching and determination.
“He can be a good player in this league for a long time,” Davis said.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.