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Patriots should go rushing after Quinn

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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Go for it, Bill. Treat yourself. It’s time.

Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL. What he has done in the salary-cap era — four Super Bowl appearances, three championships, and eight division titles in 11 years — rivals what Vince Lombardi did with the Packers in the 1960s.

It’s truly that impressive.

And Belichick has done it the hard way. Whether it was molding the leftovers from the Pete Carroll regime — which were better than what most believe — or signing veteran free agents to fill the cracks on the Super Bowl teams, Belichick and his staff constantly have been squeezing and scheming the absolute best out of the roster. No one makes more with less.

It continued last season, with perhaps his finest coaching job — right up until the disappointing (and increasingly problematic) playoff loss to the Jets.

The Patriots were not supposed to go 14-2 last season. Not against that schedule. Not with at least six rookies needing to make instant impacts.

But the Patriots coached unexpected performances out of those rookies, including Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, and Zoltan Mesko.

Belichick also was forced to split up the roles of five defensive positions — both safety and outside linebacker spots, and inside linebacker — among 12 players. And that’s to say nothing of the constant shuffling on the defensive line because of injuries to Ty Warren and then Mike Wright.

Every down was a creative adventure. Belichick relishes that challenge, and the fact is he’ll never stop tinkering. It’s the fabric of his greatness as a coach.

But it wouldn’t hurt to lessen the workload.

Enter Robert Quinn, the defensive end/outside linebacker out of North Carolina.

It’s no secret the Patriots struggled for long stretches last season to generate pressure against the quarterback. New England ended up in the middle of the pack with 35 sacks, but 15 came against the Steelers and Dolphins — who were injury-ravaged on the line — and Packers, who had a quarterback making his first career start.

And while some statistics may be deceiving, allowing the opponent to convert 47 percent of third downs — by far the worst mark in the league — is not.

So the simple truth is the Patriots must generate more pressure on the quarterback. It will help the secondary defend third down better, and will give Tom Brady & Co. more time with the ball in their hands.

It does not look like that pressure is going to improve greatly with what’s on the roster. So it’s time to look at the draft.

Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller is without question the top pass rusher in this draft. But he’s too small for the Patriots scheme and he will be off the board by the third pick.

Then there is Quinn before a big dropoff to rest of the pack of Patriot possibilities, including Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, Jabaal Sheard, Akeem Ayers, Justin Houston, Brooks Reed, and Chris Carter.

It’s time for the Patriots to get the type of player that you don’t have to draw up a blitz for.

It’s nearly mind-boggling that Belichick has picked just six outside linebackers in his 11 drafts here. In most 3-4 defenses, it is the most important position after nose tackle.

Only two have been picked before the sixth round: Cunningham (second round) in 2010, and Shawn Crable (third round) in ’08. Belichick never has taken an outside linebacker before the 53d selection, and it’s one of five positions where Belichick never has used a first-round pick (also quarterback, receiver, offensive tackle, center).

You could make the argument that that says something in itself, that Belichick always will rely more on scheme than talent at the position, but we’ll conveniently ignore that, with visions of Belichick coordinating Lawrence Taylor with the Giants.

The Patriots would have to be comfortable with Quinn, and there’s some reason to be uncomfortable.

He hasn’t played in a year because he was suspended by the NCAA for accepting outside benefits from an agent. Scouts who have looked into Quinn believe he is impressionable and can fall in with the wrong crowd. But that wouldn’t likely be a concern with the Patriots.

Some aren’t convinced that Quinn, who had surgery to remove a benign brain tumor in high school, can stand up full-time in the 3-4. The Patriots make those kind of conversion judgments every year, and went through it with Cunningham, who has the look of a solid player but is lacking as a pass rusher at this point.

Besides that, Quinn fits the Patriots’ profile at the position at 6 feet 4 inches, 264 pounds, with 4.64 speed. In two seasons, he had 25 1/2 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks.

“Good player, but just not much body of work, and average character at best,’’ said an AFC personnel executive. “Lots of upside, though, and if the Patriots were to hit on him, he would dramatically improve that defense. They have no pass rushers you game-plan for. It’s all scheme.’’

To get Quinn, the Patriots would have to trade into the top 10. It’s an expensive proposition with no rookie salary cap on the horizon, but a possibility.

ESPN reported that the Patriots have shown an interest in moving up. A league source said the Patriots have spoken to the Browns about the sixth pick and Quinn would be the likely target, although receiver Julio Jones and cornerback Patrick Peterson cannot be discounted.

The Patriots could package the 17th and 28th picks to move up. Or the 17th, 60th (second round), 74th (third), and perhaps a late pick.

They still would have the flexibility and ammunition to add many parts later in the draft, or spin some of the picks for selections in 2012. They still would be in a position of strength.

Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio worked a lot of magic to accumulate six of the draft’s first 92 picks. They’ve built to this point, and they should cash in by filling the biggest hole on a very good team that could be on the verge of being great.

If Quinn is gone or the Patriots don’t feel the risk outweighs the possible reward, they should be able to improve the team with their current selections in the first round.

Five personnel executives (one from the NFC) were asked what two players they would least like to see the Patriots acquire with the 17th and 28th selections.

Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan, who may not be there at 17, was named by three.

“He’s so versatile,’’ one said. “I don’t want to see what Belichick would do with him.’’

Alabama running Mark Ingram was named twice — as the 28th selection.

“Would cause you headaches along with that passing attack,’’ one said.

Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget and Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams were mentioned at 17.

Cornerback Prince Amukamara and Boise State receiver Titus Young were mentioned at 28.

“Big-play guys,’’ said the executive who named Williams and Young. “Just what they don’t need [laughing].’’

What about Quinn?

“He would have absolutely been there, but there’s no way he lasts to 17,’’ one said.

That’s why it’s time for the Patriots to get that pass rusher.

Go ahead, Bill, you’ve earned it.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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