The Cameron Heyward pick has me thinking. We have Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel - both excellent players, both drafted very low. Most teams running the 3-4 defense high don't value the defensive end position very highly - it doesn't produce a lot of sacks and generally serves the purpose of opening up lanes for the linebackers to make plays. As such, the prevailing opinion is that you can get by with lesser players at this position.
This is why the Heyward pick is so odd. A first rounder on the 3-4 defensive end position isn't necessarily unusual - we saw four (counting Dareus, who could play nose, and Heyward) in the first round this year, and this is after a guy like Tyson Jackson went in the top 3. This isn't even considering that guys like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan (who were dream 3-4 defensive ends) were projected very highly (though they went to 4-3 teams). Clearly the position is growing in importance, but why?
I think we need to focus on these defensive ends because of the growth of the spread offense. Examine our Superbowl foes and champions, the Green Bay Packers. They ran the nickel defense 55% of the time. For anyone not superb at math, that's over HALF the time. They had two down linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs on the field. Part of that was because, honestly, it was the best combination of their talent on defense. The big reason, however, was the need for fast and quick coverage guys to counter the growth of three and four receiver sets (which are now used a great deal in the NFL). It makes a lot of sense. When you have such great linebackers, you naturally want to drop a lesser position (which is defensive end in this scheme) to leave your primary pass rushers on the field to counter this defense while increasing coverage.
We saw this defense a lot this year, but not only from the Packers. I recall the Steelers running it frequently (though we ran it with inferior defensive backs, and suffered). I recall seeing a defensive set with two defensive ends (Ziggy and either Keisel or Eason) down with our four linebackers behind them. This set served the Packers very well and, strategically, makes a great deal of sense. It puts two decent pass rushers up front who can also occupy an extra blocker, free up your linebackers to blitz or drop into coverage. It's a fairly natural counter to the increase of the spread offense.
This is why the Heyward pick makes sense. I was initially skeptical, but I'm starting to believe it may have resulted (besides Heyward being the best player available) from the Steelers perhaps considering increasing the use of this scheme. It would certainly help us against teams like the Patriots or the Colts, both of whom we play this year (I'm desperately trying to get tickets to the Colts game, which is less than an hour north of where I go to law school) and whom we contend with each year for the top seeding in the conference. Putting a rapidly developing Ziggy Hood next to Cameron Heyward could give us an excellent pass rush/blocker occupying duo for the future while we run the nickel defense more often, and release our linebackers to blitz or drop into coverage. I feel like this could be the first signal in the shift from a base 3-4 to using the 2-4-5 more often (with the Packers using it more than half the time, it's obviously their base set, and could be ours). It could be a good way to counter the developing offensive strategies of the NFL, and is something worth considering.