By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff.
I’ve been pretty optimistic in the last three previews about the level of young talent on the defense. Now we come to the outside linebacker position, which at this point appears to be the weak link on the defense side of things. Much has been made about the Patriots lack of a pass rush, and at first glance, it doesn’t seem like much was done to address this need in the offseason. With Dean Pees out and Bill Belichick taking a more active role in coaching the defense, perhaps there will be strategic changes that will result in improved production from this group, but in terms of talent, it might be more if a case of addition by subtraction, with bad apple Adalius Thomas having been sent packing.
Here’s a look at the depth chart at outside linebacker:
Seeing that name at the top of the list kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? When Banta-Cain was brought in last offseason for his second tour of duty with New England, some felt he wouldn’t even make the team. Instead, he wound up leading the team in sacks, with 10 on the season. He also played relatively well against the run, racking up a career-high 60 tackles. He was rewarded in the offseason with a new three year contract from the team. Banta-Cain is a nice player, and a good team chemistry guy, having been here for two of the Super Bowl championships, but he shouldn’t be the best outside linebacker on a team with championship aspirations. Will he be able to repeat the success he had in 2009? It seems unlikely.
Derrick Burgess (Has yet to report to camp. Considering retirement.)
The butt of a lot of sports radio wisecracks last season, Burgess never became the pass-rushing force that many envisioned him to be when the Patriots traded for him during training camp. Burgess, who will turn 32 in August, is technically listed as a defensive end on the roster, but in reality he plays the role of a linebacker. He seemed to get more comfortable as the season went along, and earned the praise of coach Bill Belichick toward the end of the season for his ability to pick up the system and play an all-around game. Still, it was a bit of a surprise when the Patriots re-signed him this offseason. Perhaps with a season under his belt, we’ll see more of the player who was such a force with the Eagles and Raiders earlier in his career.
The rookie from Florida is also listed as a defensive end, but will be counted on to provide youth and speed to the pass rush at outside linebacker. It came as something of a surprise that the Patriots passed up many highly-touted pass rushers in the draft before selecting Cunningham in the second round. At 6-3, 260, he’s got good size for the position, and his credentials in college as a pass rusher were very good. The Patriots need a significant contribution from Cunningham as a rookie.
Claimed off the scrap heap from the New Orleans Saints last preseason, Ninkovich played his way onto the team, and wound up be a solid contributor, mostly on special teams, but also at times with the defense. Seeing him wearing the #50 vacated by Mike Vrabel, I’ll confess to hoping that the Patriots had discovered the next Vrabel after watching him a bit in preseason. Probably not the case. If a guy or two below him on the chart, especially Crable can get on the field and show something, Ninkovich might find himself on the roster bubble.
Shawn Crable (released 7/28)
I think we already went over all that needs to said about Crable. This is it for him. He needs to get on the field, and show what he can do, or this is the end of the line. If they can get any sort of contribution from him it has to be considered a bonus at this point.
The time might have come to move on from Woods as well, though I give him a better chance of making the team than Eric Alexander. Woods has had chances to play in the regular defense over the last couple of years, even starting five games at outside linebacker a year ago. His production left a lot to be desired. At one time I had fairly high hopes for Woods, but now I think he’s fortunate if he just makes the club as a special teams player.
Murrell was one of the Patriots’ early free agent signings, coming over from the Jets, where he spent the last three seasons, mostly as a special teams player. Murrell was one of the top players in Division I-AA. coming out of Appalachian State where he posted back-to-back 13-sack seasons. Known as a speed-rusher, Murrell hasn’t had much of a chance to show his skills with an NFL defense. An interview with Murrell over at TheJetsBlog gives you a little more information on the former defensive end, who will seemingly get a chance with the Patriots defense that so badly needs a pass rush.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Montana State, Fletcher is yet another defensive end being transformed into an outside linebacker. A solid citizen off the field, Fletcher was productive enough at a small school that many scouts felt he had a chance to be drafted. He’s got some intriguing physical skills and experience, but is likely a practice squad candidate at this time.
At this point, this is one of the weakest areas on the team, and without much depth to speak of. Beyond Banta-Cain and Burgess, the Patriots are going to need a big rookie year from Cunningham, and hope that Crable can get on the field and live up to the promise he had coming out of Michigan two years ago. That might be a tall order. The Patriots have done a good job building up depth and experience at all other defensive positions, but this remains an area in desperate need of upgrade. Hopefully Cunningham can step in, but that’s a tall order for a rookie. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots bringing guys in that have been cut by other teams over the course of training camp, hoping to find treasure in another team’s trash.