The New England Patriots' defense is moving towards July's training camp without either of their two top pass-rushers from a season ago on the roster. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson lead the way with 10 sacks apiece last season, but neither is on the New England roster. Anderson left via free agency to join the Buffalo Bills, and Carter is a free agent nursing his torn quad from last December.
This begs the question, who will lead the way for the Patriots' pass rush in 2012?
If Andre Carter were going to be healthy enough to rejoin the team and play throughout the whole season, he would be the simple answer. However, at this time, even if he were to re-sign, his most likely scenario would be to work his way back while missing the first couple of months while on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
Assuming Carter is indeed nowhere to be seen on the field in Foxboro come September, there are four potential candidates to lead the team in sacks this season: Rob Ninkovich, free-agent signing Trevor Scott, first-rounder Chandler Jones and third-round pick Jake Bequette.
During last Wednesday's minicamp practice, Ninkovich, Scott and Bequette were all seen playing as a defensive ends at times on the Patriots' first-team defense, according to Andy Hart of Patriots Football Weekly. Hart also reported Jones received some time on Tuesday before having his knee examined.
Ninkovich is the only member of this unit who was with the team last season, which gives him a head start simply because he knows what he is doing in New England's schemes. He is also coming off his best season as a pro with a career-high 6.5 sacks. He in not really known as a force getting after the quarterback, but that is still decent output for someone who was not playing in that role full time.
Scott is a name New Englanders may not be too familiar with from his time with the Oakland Raiders. Fans may also not know Scott actually was tied for the Raiders lead in sacks in each of his first two seasons. That being said, those totals were only five and seven sacks in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In his last two seasons he combined for just 1.5 sacks and started zero games last season. At a risk of stating the obvious, his career has been going dramatically the wrong way.
Jones on paper should be the best pass-rusher long-term of any of these players, or the Patriots may have selected the wrong man with their first pick, although he put up somewhat modest sack numbers in his college run at Syracuse. He may have hit double digits last season, but a knee injury caused him to play in just seven games, finishing with 4.5 sacks. Jones has a lot of length to him, but he looks like the type of player who would benefit by adding some bulk to his frame and becoming even more of an imposing presence on the football field.
Finally, there is Bequette. In comparison to Jones, Bequette had the more impressive college career when it comes to strictly rushing the passer. Bequette finished last season with 10 sacks for Arkansas and also tallied seven as a junior. He looks like he is the type of player who will be able to step right in and get after the passer, even if that is all he has to offer the defense during his rookie campaign.
Jake Bequette, at least for one year, will offer the most as a pass-rusher to the New England defense. He may only play in passing situations, sitting in favor of Ninkovich and Scott possibly on early downs, but when he is out on the field Bill Belichick will be making it easy for him: Go get the quarterback.
Do not expect him to blow the other three out of the water. In fact, each of these players should contribute at worst five sacks this season. Look for Bequette to lead the team by finishing up in the eight or nine range.
The Patriot pass rush will not have any one dominant force, but it will have overall pressure better than in years past, coming from a variety of players and a variety of places.