Tully Banta-Cain is truly the New England Patriots' best pass rusher. He's not a multi-dimensional rusher, he's not particularly great in the run game, but he's an able pass-rush threat whose ten sacks were the most in a single season by any Patriots this decade not named Mike Vrabel.
What Banta-Cain sorely missed this season was somebody to take pressure off him, a complementary threat that could give opposing lines pause about shifting protection either way.
I've written about this before but if you look around the league, the best pass rushers all benefit from complementary help on the other side of the line. Jared Allen has the vastly underrated Ray Edwards.
DeMarcus Ware has Anthony Spencer. Dwight Freeney has Robert Mathis (or perhaps vice-versa).
Banta-Cain has Derrick Burgess whose Pro Bowl days are behind him. His skill set just doesn't translate to the Patriots' system.
The uncapped year couldn't come at a better time for New England though. With Adalius Thomas pitching a fit throughout the year, the cap hit that would have been taken on by cutting his salary, if the Patriots go that way, isn't a factor.
What is a factor is that there's not a lot of talent to replace him. Thomas did not play well this year, though the schemes hardly put him in a situation to succeed, often giving him the toughest assignment, or requiring him to close down one aspect of a play and allow his teammates to do the rest.
(The Miami game was a good example of this, where he basically shut down one option and let the defense collapse on the other)
Still, he's arguably their most gifted player, even if he never lived up to the hype of his days as a Special Teams maven in Baltimore.
Behind him on the depth chart is essentially the injury-equivalent of a trauma ward and then Gary Guyton whose reliance speed and raw athleticism makes him a valuable coverage player, assuming he develops better ball skills. As an every-down player, though, Guyton hasn't proven anything yet.
Last year the Patriots were linked constantly before the draft with any of the three USC linebackers who came out. While Clay Matthews (an instant success) and Brian Cushing (defensive rookie of the year) went too high for them, they also passed on Rey Maualuga (injured, but a real talent) and on the entire first round.
This year, they need to go back to the drawing board on their draft philosophy, whether there's a rookie cap or not, and get somebody who can add to their pass rush today.
With guys like Cushing and Matthews showing rookies can have an immediate impact as a stand-up pass rusher, it'll be up to the Patriots to select the right guy to continue their defensive rebuild.