Pressure is on to improve the pass rush
MOBILE, Ala. — It’s fairly obvious that the Patriots need to do something to improve their pass rush. Sure, it was decent in games when they jumped out to big leads, but when they needed it, pressure was lacking in big spots — specifically in the playoff loss to the Jets.
And it put a great deal of pressure on the secondary, which ranked among the bottom of the league in third-down conversions and completion percentage.
Don’t forget, a defensive end (Mike Wright) led the team with 5 1/2 sacks — and he missed the final six games with a concussion.
So what will the Patriots do?
We’ll ignore free agency for now; with no collective bargaining agreement, there’s no point in addressing it.
One AFC scouting director said he expects the Patriots, with two picks in each of the first two rounds of the draft, to take an approach similar to the one they did last year at tight end when they drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
“When you have multiple picks like that, you can throw numbers at the problem, take some risk for high reward,’’ the scouting director said. “Gronkowski had the back, Hernandez the drug thing. You figure one is going to hit. Both did for them and look what happened. You’d figure they would try that again with pass rush.’’
The Patriots could use help at both end and outside linebacker. The consensus at the Senior Bowl is that it’s a very good year for 3-4 ends, an average year on the outside.
“You can get ends up and down the draft,’’ said an NFC assistant director of college scouting. “Then you have to figure out what you’re looking for.’’
The depth is clear, especially on the North squad. Cal’s Cameron Jordan (6 feet 4 inches, 287 pounds) is nearly unblockable.
“He really impressed me,’’ said Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo. “He’s real strong to go with some good moves and speed. A really good player.’’
Several scouts compared Jordan to former Patriot Adalius Thomas because of his versatility and skill set. Thomas didn’t work out long-term in New England, but Bill Belichick obviously likes that type of player. Jordan is a young, moldable player who will stay within the scheme.
Iowa’s Christian Ballard (6-5, 288) has versatility but might be more of an end.
“He’s a good player that is long and plays with a high motor,’’ Castonzo said. “I went a lot against him at guard and he was tough.’’
The opinions are split on Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan (6-4, 263). Some scouts think he can play linebacker in the 3-4 with some work; others feel he’s strictly a 4-3 end.
“In the NFL, the 3-4 outside backer is someone who gets after the quarterback,’’ Kerrigan said. “I feel like I can do that, and when it comes to dropping in coverage, I’m working on that right now in my combine training. And I’m willing to work tirelessly at getting good at that as well.’’
Other top rushing linemen at the Senior Bowl are Jarvis Jenkins (Clemson), Pernell McPhee (Mississippi State), Phil Taylor (Baylor), Cedric Thornton (Southern Arkansas), and Pierre Allen (Nebraska).
As for the linebackers, there’s no disputing the top player: Texas A&M’s Von Miller. He may be just 6-2 1/2 and 237 but no scout disputed he will be a 3-4 outside backer.
“And he’ll be long gone before the Patriots pick at 17,’’ said the AFC scouting director. “A phenomenal athlete who will test off the charts at the combine.’’
If a team like the Patriots prefers bigger outside linebackers, the success of Clay Matthews of the Packers and others has altered that thinking.
“I want to be the first defensive player taken off the board, regardless of category,’’ Miller said.
While the other top 3-4 outside linebackers will be underclassmen, Brooks Reed (Arizona) and K.J. Wright (Mississippi State) are promising.
Reed is very strong at 6-2 1/2, 257, and has good explosion off the ball. Wright is long-limbed at 6-3 and 246, and played in a passive read-and-react system. He needs to be coached up but has a high ceiling if someone can get him to turn it loose.
The Patriots may have some issues with their pass rush but help should be on the way come the end of April.
“They put themselves in good position for this draft,’’ the AFC scouting director said. “They have plenty of ammunition to get it done.’’