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Debate Friday: Biggest draft need?

PFW's Erik Scalavinoand Andy Hart, fresh from their annual trip to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, are today's combatants in Debate Friday.

At issue: which area of need is the biggest for the Patriots in next month's NFL Draft?

Read their arguments, then share your thoughts with us.

Erik Scalavino says, "The offensive line..."

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This week saw the retirement of Stephen Neal, longtime starting right guard. Last week, starting left guard Logan Mankins' agent called his All-Pro client's franchise tag a "travesty." And recently, starting left tackle Matt Light – a free agent-to-be – told the Boston Herald that he'd like to come back to New England, but that he'd entertain offers from any and every other team in the league.

That's three-fifths of the Patriots' o-line which could be altered significantly in 2011. And if Light leaves, in all likelihood, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer would slide over to left. That means the only returning starter at the same spot entering next season would be center Dan Koppen.

Why is this such a concern?

Because that line is protecting the best quarterback in the game. And let's face it, as we discovered in 2008, no Tom Brady = no playoffs for New England.

Don't get me wrong, I still want the Patriots to address the gaping hole that currently exists at the outside linebacker position. New England's pass rush has been conspicuous in its absence the past few years, and it has cost them games at times. But the Patriots have won games (14, in fact, last season) because of Brady. If he doesn't have time to throw or is knocked out of action for an extended period, New England's playoff amd Super Bowl chances take a drastic hit.

I'm as big a fan of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia as anyone. What he's been able to do over the years with players like Neal is nothing short of remarkable. However, to expect him to extract every last ounce of potential from every young prospect he's given year to year is unreasonable.

Consider that last year, the Patriots drafted two offensive linemen in late rounds on the final day of the draft. Neither made the team. And a 2009 draftee, George Bussey, after spending his rookie year on IR, failed to make the squad in 2010. That disturbing recent trend is troublesome to me. Which makes me more inclined to want the Patriots to draft a top-flight guard and/or tackle with at least one or two of the team's three picks in the first 33 overall.

Pass rush remains a top concern, too, but of all the positions we scouted at the Combine last month, that was the deepest. O-line, not so much, which makes it even more imperative for New England to snag a quality player there. If they just stay put, they should be able to get an effective outside linebacker prospect as well.
~ ES

Andy Hart says, "The pass rush..."

As thin as things are getting these days on the offensive line, I still think the pass rush is the biggest area of need for the Patriots. A big part of my reasoning here is that I have tremendous respect for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and, to put it bluntly, his proven ability to turn chicken-bleep into chicken salad. Heck, with all due respect to the players in question, we've seen Scarnecchia do that over the years with guys like Dan Connolly, Rush Hochstein, Billy Yates, Tom Ashworth and seemingly endless others.

But, I've never really seen the defense show the ability to get by with inferior talent in the pass rush. Without guys like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel, the pass rush just hasn't been good enough in recent years. Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and the developing Jermaine Cunningham seem like hard workers and do their best, but last year their best simply wasn't good enough.

For that reason I think the Patriots still need to focus on the pass rush, supposedly one of the stronger spots in the draft with some potential elite talent, early on in the process. Maybe that means a pick at No. 17. Maybe it even means trading up to get an elite rusher, while leaving the guard and tackle positions for later in the first round or the second.

I know with Light set to hit free agency, Mankins in an ongoing contract dispute and Neal retiring it feels like the sky is falling on the offensive line. But look at it this way: Sebastian Vollmer is a second-team All-Pro seemingly ready to flip to left tackle and Dan Koppen is a returning Pro Bowl center. In all likelihood Mankins will have to play things out for another year in New England again, maybe under the franchise tender. And Connolly, for his struggles in the playoffs against the Jets, started 13 games last fall for the best offense in the NFL. Under that logical breakdown, only the right tackle spot is truly wide open.

I'm not advocating ignoring the need for both depth and top-end talent on the offensive line. I'm just saying that picks at guard/tackle should come after Bill Belichick and Co. have done their best to get the best option to fill the team's immense need in the pass rush. Once that's filled (hopefully with Robert Quinn!), then I'm more than open to using either a first- or second-round pick (maybe even both) to restock Scarnecchia's line cupboard. But if you're asking me which position I'd rather see the Patriots make-do at, that would be the line where Scarnecchia's greatest strength is putting together a solid, cohesive unit with less than ideal talent. To make strides on defense, though, and probably as a playoff team on the whole, the Patriots need to add an impact player in the pass rush.

Belichick once said you can always get a guard. I take it a step further and say you can always get a lineman, either later in the draft or through free agency. But pass rushers for the edge of the 3-4, as we've seen the last couple years, are tough to come by. New England needs to get one early in this year's draft.
~ AH

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