The Patriots defense made tremendous strides in 2010 but one area that remains a problem is the pass rush. New England had trouble generating pressure on the passer throughout the season and many people (including the good folks at PFW) believe the time has come to finally address this deficiency.
The question is what is the best way for the team to go about doing it? Assuming the current labor situation gets resolved in time for teams to adequately pursue free agents (which is a big if at this point), the Patriots could go after a proven veteran they believe fits their system or they could opt to identify someone in the draft and hope the dominos fall correctly come April.
Either way the need for an impact pass rusher is evident and Paul Perilloand Andy Harttake sides on the following question:
Would you rather acquire a veteran pass rusher or select one early in the draft?
Veteran **The biggest problem with acquiring a pass rusher is trying to project how a certain player may fit into the Patriots 3-4, two-gap scheme. That holds true for both veterans and potential draft picks. But I feel the risks of making such a leap with a proven player are smaller than for an untested rookie, who would not only be making the adjustment to the pro game but also to a scheme he likely has little experience with.
Bill Belichick asks his outside linebackers to perform a variety of tasks. While supplying a quality pass rush is our chief concern with this question, they also must be sturdy enough to set the edge against the run and provide a semblance of coverage in the short passing game. I feel there is more evidence of a player's skills handling those types of roles for a veteran than there would be with virtually any college player.
The current free agent crop has some intriguing names including the likes of Tamba Hali,LaMarr Woodley, Antwan Barnes, Jason Taylorand Manny Lawson- all of whom have had some success getting pressure off the edge. The franchise tag takes some of these guys off the board but the opportunity to pursue a quality veteran could exist if Belichick decides to go that way.
It's time for the coach to identify one of these talented players he believes can make the transition, because the Patriots defense needs some playmakers who are capable of making an immediate impact. Asking a rookie to do that right out of the chute may be asking too much - although I wouldn't be disappointed if Belichick opted to pursue both avenues.
Given the ammunition that Bill Belichick has at his disposal - including three picks in the first 33 selections - and the handful of impressive pass rushers available in the draft, that's the route I'd like to see the Patriots go to fill out their biggest current need.
Over the last few years we've seen that rookie pass rushers can have a huge immediate impact. Guys like Brian Orakpo (19.5 sacks in two seasons, 11 as a rookie) and Clay Matthews(23.5 sacks in two seasons, 10 as a rookie) have gone to Pro Bowls while serving as instant contributors on their teams. Julius Peppershad 12 sacks as a rookie. Dwight Freeney13. You get the point. In fact, in many ways, pass rushers seem to be like running backs in that if they have the elite NFL ability, they can showcase it from day one.
Going after an elite pass rusher in the draft also is a cost effective move. To go get a veteran the Patriots would have to give up a ton of money and potentially other valuable assets in a trade. Even if they have to trade up to get a guy like Robert Quinnor Von Miller, the contract should be relatively palatable, especially if there is a rookie wage scale in the new CBA.
Bringing in a veteran also brings the concern of that player, though proven at the NFL level, not fitting in with the New England scheme. We learned that firsthand with former Pro Bowler Adalius Thomas. Sometimes old dogs, even seemingly perfectly productive dogs, can't learn new tricks in a new system. With rookies, that's less of an issue as you're starting from a clean slate in the pro game.
The bottom line that is when Belichick sees a huge need and targets that need, he often does a good job filling it through the draft. For years people said things like he wouldn't draft an inside linebacker or a guard high in the draft, whether his team really needed it or not. But when he decided to go get Jerod Mayowith the 10th overall pick or take Logan Mankins late in the first round Belichick came away with a pair of All-Pro players. I'd like to see him do the same thing this year with a pass rusher. Decide who the ideal, elite-level guy is for the Patriots and go get him.
The time is now. The options are there. The price is right. Draft a pass rusher and the future on defense could be bright.
*Cast your vote in this week's "Debate Friday" poll: