Each week leading up to the draft, the Foxboro Blog crew will spend a week breaking down a position on the Patriots' roster. We'll start with a quick overview and then move onto a discussion involving potential draftees at that spot as well as free-agents that the Patriots may pursue. Up this week is the Linebacking Corps...
2010 Recap: The Patriots entered the 2010 off-season with a need for a pass-rushing outside linebacker. The Adalius Thomas experiment had come to a contentious end the year before and the Pats anemic pass rush had severely hurt them in '09. As the analysts and prognosticators made their predictions, they assumed Bill Belichick would make a big move to address this gaping hole in the defense either via the draft or free-agency. They were wrong. The only free-agent that seemed to by seriously courted by the team, ex-Bill Aaron Schobel ended up passing on the Patriots in favor of sitting out the season. The team did spend a 2nd round pick on Jermaine Cunningham who would play OLB, but he was in the process of converting from the DE position in college and was pegged for a "transition" year in 2010. Things got even more dicey in training camp when veteran Derrick Burgess held out to contemplate retirement, only to re-join the team and subsequently get cut. That left the bulk of the outside linebacking duty to Rob Ninkovich and the 2009 team sack-leader Tully Banta-Cain.
While Ninkovich exceeded most people's expectations, Banta-Cain had a severe drop-off from his previous season. Jermaine Cunningham showed flashes of brilliance, but injuries slowed him down at the end of the year. Overall, it was a pretty dismal season on the outside and the Patriots' lack of a pass rush was perhaps the top reason why the team seemed to fail to get stops time and time again on third down.
On the inside, things were much, much brigther. It always helps when you have a Pro Bowl-caliber tackling maching like Jerod Mayo. Rookie Brandon Spikes was excellent at stopping the run and will likely develop into a special player if he responds well to coaching. Gary Guyton continued his solid play as well and even found himself on the highlight reel a few times by reeling in some opportune interceptions.
Returning Players: Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Eric Moore, Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes
Patriots Free-Agents: Tracy White
2011 Outlook: The Patriots are well-stocked at inside linebacker. Other than an injury, the only thing that could potentially derail this high-point of the defense would be if Brandon Spikes has a second violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Supposedly unauthorized stimulants used to treat his ADHD lead to the rookie missing the last four games of the regular season. If he slips up again, Spikes would be due for an eight-game suspension. Brandon has been rock-solid on the field, but has had some questionable activies pop up when he's off of it. If he can move past those indiscretions, a Mayo/Spikes inside combo may very well be the best in the league.
The outside linebacker position is a complete question mark as we head into 2011. Hopefully, Jermaine Cunningham will be poised to make the big leap a lot of players experience as they begin their second season in the league. Rob Ninkovich continuing his 2010 form would also be a nice boost as well. Unfortunately, as Tully Banta-Cain proved this year, you can't always translate success from one season to the next. Banta-Cain really stumbled in 2010 and there is some uncertainty as to whether the Patriots feel he's worth the contract they'd be paying him in '11. It would not be surprising if TBC found himself cut over the off-season.
No matter what happens with those three players, the Patriots absolutely need to be aggressive in obtaining a quality OLB in both free-agency and the draft. It's almost certain that they'll spend one of their first three picks on a big-time pass rushing threat. However, in all fairness, that big time player may end up being a DE as opposed to an OLB. Top free-agent prospects like the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley or the Chiefs' Tamba Hali are prime candidates to recieve the franchise tag and may be out of the Patriots reach. If either of those two hit the open market, the Pats would be wise to jump all over them. If they are unavailable, there still remains a serviceable group of free-agent OLB and I expect the Patriots to make a strong attempt to sign one.
The outside linebacker position and pass-rush in general may have been the team's biggest weak spot in 2010. If they can patch things up heading into this next season, it bodes well for their title hopes.
I'm not disagreeing about the need, but I wonder if the coaching staff's perception of that need matches what the public thinks. They could feel comfortable with Ninkovich and Cunningham on the outside in a base defense. Both of those guys were first-year starters, and Belichick preaches that the biggest jump for a player comes between Year 1 and Year 2. If they decide to keep Banta-Cain, I think it's very possible that they won't place a high priority on that position in the draft, possibly waiting until the 2nd or 3rd to draft one. Of course, that equation could change dramatically if they decide to cut ties with TBC.
@DeROK82 It's hard to argue that the defense would not benefit from a better pass rush. My point is that I'm not sure the coaching staff would be sold on the idea of investing much in a player whose primary value is rushing the QB if they think Cunningham and Ninkovich can get the job done. I think they are more likely to spend their early picks on potential 3-down or 4-down players (OL, DL, RB, CB) before they address the OLB situation given the youth and potential they may already see at the position. If they see a potential 3-down OLB who can get after the QB, I could see them making a move. But I'd be surprised if they invested a high pick or big bucks in free agency on a player whose primary value is rushing the passer.
@JasonT You could definitely do a lot worse than Cunningham and Ninkovich in the base formation. However, I still think the Patriots need that 3rd down rushing specialist to bring the heat and help the team get off the field.
Think about how many botched 3rd downs this team had on defense last year. You start turning those into 4th down punts and Brady is getting an extra possession or two per game to work with and better field position. Last year's team would've been scoring in the 40's on a regular basis!
A Ninkovich/Cunningham combo would be well-above average, but they need a stud on the other side. Simple as that.
And probably more than one young guy for depth purposes. I wouldn't mind seeing a first and third round pick spent on OLB/DE guys to put pressure on the passer.
I think you hit the nail on the head. I'd agree that TBC is likely on his way out the door. Ninkovich and Cunnigham are the real wild cards on the team. If both of those players took a step forward next year, the Pats wouldn't really need another OLB for anything besides depth. But it certainly couldn't hurt to add to the position and get another potential 3-down OLB.