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How the Resurgence of the 3-4 Scheme Made the Bears and Mike Rivera a Perfect Fit

Mike Rivera
Mike Rivera

Long after the thrill of Saturday's first round and the seemingly never ending stream of second day draft picks, Mike Rivera formerly of the Kansas Jayhawks got an opportunity to sign as a free agent with the Chicago Bears. 

Reported interest from both the 49ers and Chicago Bears meant two fairly solid situations for the former Jayhawk.  Go to San Francisco and play for one of the great linebackers in the history of football or go to Chicago and play for one of the great linebacking producing organizations in the history of football.

I won't pretend to know the why's or if there was really a choice to be made but I'd like to think that the style of play and the opportunity to make a career out of things led Rivera to Chicago.  Likewise I'd argue that an overall style of play and trends in the league led Chicago to Rivera.

A look at what current NFL defensive trends might mean for Rivera after the jump...

First off, scheme aside I think there is reason to believe Rivera could be a solid pickup in this draft at the linebacker spot.  Why? Quite frankly the landscape of college football and specifically the Big 12 changed over the course of Rivera's college career.  When Mike showed up to campus he was athletic, he was quick and built for Big 12 football.  Along comes an all out offensive assault and the spread offense and suddenly a big, strong and reasonably athletic linebacker almost becomes a liability on the outside.  Pair that with a rumored undisclosed injury throughout his senior year and you have reason to believe that Mike Rivera, who some thought could feasibly play himself into a 3rd-5th round selection, might just be better than your average undrafted free agent.

Looking at it from an NFL standpoint there is also reason to believe that scheme might also have contributed to his slide out of the draft.  What scheme is it? The increasingly popular 3-4 and the type of player that has become so desired in the 3-4 throughout the league. 

In the 80's nearly half the NFL would have been seen running a 3-4 but like everything in football things evolve and along comes the prevalence of the 4-3.  However, another common thought when it comes to football is coming to fruition in the theory that all things are cyclical.  One of the first dominoes to fall in the recent resurgence of the 3-4 was that of the New England Patriots and Bill Belicheck.  San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland soon followed.  Pittsburgh and Baltimore's 3-4 schemes are pretty stout units as well.  This season will see even more with the Broncos, Chiefs and Packers also converting bringing the total number of 3-4 defenses to near half the league once again. 

What's the theory here?  Why is the 3-4 taking over again?  I guess the most common belief would be that it's easier to find quality linebackers than defensive lineman.  Specifically the most important position and most coveted though would appear to be the DE/OLB hybrid that applies the pressure in the 3-4.  Your Sean Merriman's, your Demarcus Ware's or James Harrison type players.  These guys are commonly ends in college but considered tweeners in the pro's and capable of playing linebacker in the  3-4 scheme.

Taking a look at this years draft alone there were several top talent players projected in this category:

1. Brian Orakpo
6-3 1/4,

2. Robert Ayers

3. Aaron Maybin
Penn State
6-4 1/2

4. Everette Brown
Florida State
6-1 1/2

and that's just the beginning.  These were coveted players and some will end up in 3-4 schemes but all are part of the reason why traditional linebackers like Rey Maualuga and others may have fallen.  Quality was less in demand and thus easier to find when it comes to a traditional 4-3 backer.

Which brings us back to Rivera and the Bears.  Mike Rivera was a middle linebacker who converted to the strongside for his final two seasons at Kansas.  He's much more a traditional backer type, not a pass rusher hand down type off the edge, not a tweener DE/OLB.  Mike Rivera is a 4-3 linebacker, and 4-3 linebackers aren't as in demand now as they were as recently as 5 years ago when Rivera began his college career.

What that means for this draft and his positioning is that higher caliber players for the more traditional linebacker roles likely slid further down in the draft and as a result Rivera who was once considered a higher pick slid.  Again, quick recap, Rivera was thought 3rd-5th after his junior year if he put together a solid senior season.  Less team and individual success partially due to injury and spread attacks leads to a slide but still a very draftable players.  Next up the 3-4 explodes in the NFL and now a guy like Rivera slides a smidge more and now straddles that line of 6th-undrafted headed into the draft.

The thing is, much of this was largely out of his control and the alleged injury being the only real thing you could question him on as far as his ability to be effective in the 4-3 against the more traditional NFL offenses. 

Here's where it get's interesting.  It would be easy to assume that maybe Rivera just doesn't have the upside or talent for the NFL and that's why he was passed on, but throw in a stellar pro day for Rivera where his numbers rivaled some of the best linebackers at the combine and a vertical that was off the charts and it would appear that Rivera is healthy, as athletic and explosive as we all thought, and well prepared for playing in a 4-3 defense.

The Bears take notice...Rivera goes undrafted...Rivera signs with the Bears...and while the end of this story is far from being told this is a great situation for Rivera and could be a very good pickup for the Bears.  Should Rivera make the squad which I hope he can, he'll see time at special teams to start out, he'll have a chance to learn from some very solid pro backers and maybe just maybe Rivera himself can turn into an above average pro.

For the Bears this is a spot where maybe they couldn't afford to use the pick on him due to other more pressing needs but since he fell out of the draft they are able to pickup a guy they like a lot and possibly be getting a guy as a free agent who could have been a 5th rounder or better if the landscape of the league were different.

This all might be wishful thinking and clearly there are no free meal tickets for the undrafted free agents of the NFL,  but I do think team situation and scheme can be nearly as important in a players success as his own talent.  Scheme and situation in the NFL led to Rivera facing a somewhat unfortunate one in not being drafted, but it might also mean he lands in a great place and the Bears get a steal in an undrafted Jayhawk.