2011 NFL Draft: Should the New England Patriots Take a Pass-Rushing OLB First?

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2011 NFL Draft: Should the New England Patriots Take a Pass-Rushing OLB First?
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Jermaine Cunningham was a second round pick for the Patriots in 2010, but only had one sack in his rookie season

Outside linebacker. A pass rusher. Someone who can consistently collapse the pocket with speed and/or power.

It's a position fans want the New England Patriots to draft early. We believe a double-digit sackmeister would take the defense to the next level, turning it into a championship-caliber unit.

Head coach Bill Belichick couldn't disagree more though.

Belichick believes sacks are overrated and is more interested in a player who will first stop the run and then consistently pressure the quarterback.

While I agree with Belichick to a degree, I want an OLB who will regularly take down the QB, not just brush by the passer.

In other words, someone who will finish the job.

Great QBs complete passes while under pressure; they can't complete passes lying flat on the ground though.

Belichick may want to rethink his approach.

Take away the 2001 and 2002 seasons because the Patriots played in a 4-3 defense during those years. Using statistics from ProFootballReference.com, any season the Patriots advanced in the playoffs from 2003-2010, the linebacker position accumulated more than 20 sacks.

During this period, whether they reached the Super Bowl or won a Wild Card game, the LBs combined for at least 21 sacks. In the last three seasons, the 'backers came up short, and so did the team:

Which OLB prospect should the Patriots select?

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YEAR           LB SACKS

2003 *             21.5
2004 *             27.5
2005 ^             22.0
2006 ^             21.0
2007 *             27.5
2008                10.0
2009                17.0
2010                18.5

* reached Super Bowl
^ won one playoff game

These sack totals don't include just the outside 'backers; these also include sacks from the two inside linebackers as well.

Disclaimer time: The 21 sacks by linebackers benchmark isn't a universal standard. The Patriots aren't as aggressive as other 3-4 defenses, so teams like Pittsburgh and Green Bay would have much higher totals than the Pats. I wouldn't even consider sacks by linebackers as a reliable statistic that indicates whether the Patriots' defense is good or not.

But it's surprising to see the consistent correlation between the stat and success.

Only twice during this period did a player bag at least 10 QBs (Mike Vrabel with 12.5 in 2007 and Tully Banta-Cain in 2009), so it's not a matter of having that one player who's nearly unstoppable off the edge.

Certainly the Patriots have tried over the years, signing free agents Rosevelt Colvin in 2003, Adalius Thomas in 2007 and acquiring Derrick Burgess in 2009.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If the Patriots drafted Clay Matthews when they had the chance in 2009 instead of trading out of the first round, there would be no need for this conversation

They even looked through the draft, selecting Ryan Claridge, Jeremy Mincey, Justin Rogers and Shawn Crable over the years. Jermaine Cunningham was the first OLB selected by Belichick in the second round of the 2010 draft, so many hope Cunningham dramatically improves on his one-sack rookie year.

But Pats fans want a stud who will wreak havoc on every snap and bring down the quarterback in three seconds before the passer can load and fire a pass off.

The best chance of drafting a potential stud is in the first round of this draft.

Many people believe the Pats blew it in 2009 when they had the opportunity to take Clay Matthews. Instead, New England traded out of the first round and accumulated picks in 2009 and 2010. For what it's worth, the Patriots turned those extra picks into CB Darius Butler, TE Rob Gronkowski and receivers Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman (I might be in the minority, but I'll take the four players over one).

Drafting a great pass-rushing OLB in the first or second round isn't a guarantee though.

Since 2003, 23 3-4 OLBs were selected in the first two rounds. Nine had at least one 10-sack season, two became solid pros, two are serviceable players and four are unmitigated busts. Three players from 2009 are on the cusp of being ruled busts, and it's too early to judge the 2010 class.

The 21 sacks by New England linebackers might just be a statistical anomaly. The consistency of the pattern just might be due to the small sample size. I won't say for a fact that 21 sacks equal playoff success, but I'd rather the Pats be on the plus side just in case.

Question? Comments? Send to talktome@randolphc.com.

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