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From the Hart: Rookie sacks exploded in 2011

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The Patriots weren't part of the party, but 2011 was a banner year for rookie pass rushers. While New England was one of just two NFL teams (Eagles) with a pair of double digit sack masters – both Andre Carter and Mark Anderson had 10 sacks! – the team didn't have the young, developing pass rusher that fans have been clamoring for during the pre-draft process in recent years.

In the past we've heard that New England avoided top-end pass rushers near the top of the draft because so few of them actually panned out early in their careers. And the statistics backed that up in recent history. But those stats got thrown for a loop in 2011.

This past fall 13 rookies had five or more sacks. Seven players had seven or more sacks, led by Aldon Smith's 14. Von Miller wasn't too far behind with 11.5. Patriots fans' pre-draft favorites like Jabaal Sheard (8.5), Ryan Kerrigan (7.5) and Brooks Reed (6), all had very productive rookie seasons. Sheard added to his numbers with an impressive five forced fumbles for the Browns. Kerrigan had four in Washington.

Those numbers were a huge increase from recent years. In 2010 only three rookies had five or more sacks. A year earlier only two guys had five or more. In each of the two years before that, three rookies had five or more sacks in each season.

While only 11 rookies had five or more sacks in the years from 2007-2010 combined, more than that reached the number this past fall alone.

Is that a one-year statistical aberration based on an impressive rookie class of pass rushers that Bill Belichick chose not to tap into? Is it the start of a trend toward young edge players having an impact in a league that becomes more pass-heavy by the day?

This year's crop of pass rushers isn't as good as the group that was at the Combine at this time a year ago. But the Patriots still need to find a young guy to develop on the edge of the front seven. As we saw last fall, plenty of those guys can play right away and add an instant impact to a defense.

Whitney Mercilus, anyone? Melvin Ingram?

Is this the year Belichick finally goes after a pass rusher at the top of the draft? Do you think he needs to? Let us know with a comment below!

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