As they search for solutions during the offseason, the Patriots would be well served to find someone who can get after the quarterback.
Early in the 2000 season New England Head Coach Bill Belichick said sacks were the most overrated statistic in football. To be sure, the only numbers that matter to teams should be wins and losses. However, all numbers point to a dismal pass rush in need of a difference-maker.
The Patriots felt they had found such a player when they drafted Willie McGinest out of Southern California with the fourth overall pick in 1994. The defensive end has led the team in sacks four of his seven seasons, including each of the last two years.
While McGinest has led the team several times, his numbers are marginal when compared to the leading sack totals across the league. He posted a career-high 11 in 1995, but that is the only double-digit total by any Patriot in the last 13 seasons.
McGinest certainly is not the sole reason for the pass rushing problems. The corps of linebackers, once thought to be a team strength, has averaged slightly more than eight sacks combined over the last three seasons. In that time, no linebacker has had more than 4 ½ sacks in one season.
Chris Slade is the Patriots active sack leader with 50 ½, and he has led the linebackers in sacks every year since 1996. However, he is now used in pass defense on a regular basis. Tedy Bruschi was initially used as a pass-rushing specialist in his rookie season, but as Bruschi has become a full-time player that role has diminished. He has just 13 sacks in five seasons, including just five in the last three.
For their first three seasons together, McGinest and Slade formed what appeared to be a deadly duo. From 1994-96 they combined for more than 15 sacks per season. That number has dropped to more than 10 sacks per season over the last four years. Injuries and wear-and-tear have slowed both players, but they are still the best pass rushers on the team, which is why the Patriots need to reload in this area.
The best pass rusher in team history was linebacker Andre Tippett, who holds the franchise record with 100 sacks. Over the course of his 11-year career he averaged more than nine sacks a year. That average includes the no sacks Tippett recorded as a rookie during the strike year of 1982 and the 3 ½ he recorded in 1990, his first year back after missing the entire 1989 season with a ruptured pectoralis in his right shoulder.
To put Tippett's numbers in perspective, Slade has produced 50 ½ sacks in eight years, while McGinest's totals are 45 ½ in seven seasons. In a combined 15 years of service, the two have four less sacks than Tippett put up on his own in four less seasons.
It is true that statistics can be bent and reshaped to skew any argument. However, in the 21 losing seasons New England has endured, there has only been one individual to record double-digits in sacks: McGinest with 11 in 1995, the year before the Patriots last Super Bowl appearance.
On the other side, the Patriots have had 14 individuals record double-digit sack totals in 19 of the franchise's winning seasons, not including the 5-4 record posted in the strike-shortened '82 season. With this in mind, New England will certainly be looking for pass rushing help this offseason.
The search will most likely focus on the defensive line. New England had just five unrestricted free agents, two of them being linemen Chad Eaton and Brandon Mitchell. Also on the line are McGinest, an aging Henry Thomas, Bobby Hamilton, who is steady but unspectacular, and a host of youngsters who made little or no impact in 2000.
In the two-gap system the Patriots use, pressure needs to come off the ends of the line. There are several ends eligible for the draft who are considered top prospects. Among the top names to watch is Justin Smith, who had 11 sacks this year for Missouri and is the school's all-time sack leader despite coming out after his junior season.
Other prospects include California's Andre Carter (the son of former Denver Bronco Rubin Carter), Florida State's Jamal Reynolds, Minnesota's Karon Riley and Aaron Schoebel of Texas Christian. Reynolds is rated as the top pass rusher in the draft by Dan Pompei of The Sporting News.
With Eaton's status up in the air, the Patriots may be forced to look at defensive tackles. The top guys at the spot are Florida junior Gerard Warren and Georgia seniors Richard Seymour and Marcus Straud.
The linebacker choices are not as strong this year, with Dan Morgan easily the top prize there. The Miami product won the Bednarik Award as the top defensive player in the country, as well as the Butkus Award and Nagurski Trophy for outstanding linebacker play. He is the first player to win all three honors in one year.
Other linebacker prospects are Carlos Polk of Nebraska, Quinton Carver of Arkansas and Georgia's Kendrell Bell.