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It’s all coming rushing back now

Offensive lineman Dan Connolly and wide receiver Matthew Slater get reacquainted yesterday. Offensive lineman Dan Connolly and wide receiver Matthew Slater get reacquainted yesterday. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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The euphoria of the NFL lockout being lifted lasted all of about five minutes for some Patriots fans.

Ask any armchair Patriots backer what their chief concern was entering the 2011 season, and a clear majority would have said the pass rush, which fizzled at the worst times last season, especially in the playoff loss to the Jets.

So what did the Patriots do when they opened shop yesterday? They told outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain his services were no longer needed and that he would be released tomorrow when teams are permitted to begin waiving players.

Uh, come again?

Yes, the same Banta-Cain who led the team with 15 sacks the past two seasons. He had only five last season, but it was still good enough to tie end Mike Wright (10 games) for the team lead. Banta-Cain toughed it out through a painful abdominal injury that sapped him of much of the giddy-up in his pass rush.

Still, Banta-Cain led the Patriots with seven quarterback hits and additional 37 pressures in 753 snaps, according to profootballfocus.com. The website, which grades every NFL play, had Banta-Cain ranked fifth among all 3-4 outside linebackers in pressures - coach Bill Belichick’s preferred pass-rushing statistic. Banta-Cain was ahead of such standouts as Clay Matthews of the Packers (36 in 879 snaps), and James Harrison of the Steelers (32 in 1,022).

The next-closest player on the Patriots was rookie Jermaine Cunningham with 24 in 577.

“It was a fun ride,’’ Banta-Cain said in a text message.

So exactly how is the pass rush supposed to improve without its best pass rusher?

Nobody knows but Belichick, but he has a plan. He always does. What do you think he was doing during the 136-day lockout, sunning himself on Nantucket?

The pressure obviously builds a bit on Cunningham, who will have to make “the jump’’ from Year 1 to 2 without the benefit of the normal offseason workouts, practices, and minicamps.

The potential is there, though. The Patriots played it a little conservative with Cunningham as a rookie by bringing him along slowly. Perhaps with the wraps taken off a bit he’ll become more of a force.

And since Belichick waited 194 picks in April’s draft to take a pass rusher - a project in former Central Arkansas end Markell Carter - he obviously likes what he has on the roster. Rob Ninkovich became more effective as the season went on, and Eric Moore showed a nose for the ball as a nickel rusher after being rescued from the United Football League.

There are also schematic things Belichick will do once the team starts practice tomorrow. Remember, after losing Ty Warren before the season and Wright for the final six games, the Patriots trotted out a defensive line that had Vince Wilfork constantly double-teamed as they tried to make do with the likes of Gerard Warren, Myron Pryor, and Brandon Deaderick.

The Patriots project to open the season with a line of Ty Warren, Wilfork, and Wright. Those three will command much more of the offensive line’s attention and open things up more for the linebackers than the group that finished the season.

There’s still a chance that Banta-Cain could be back at a reduced rate, although he already had received interest from other teams last night. But there was no guarantee he would have, at age 31 on opening day, regained his 10-sack form from ’09 after having surgery last week to repair his abdomen, which had flared up in workouts.

“He’s grateful for the tenure he had with them,’’ agent James Sims said. “He’s grateful for the organization and Mr. [Robert] Kraft.’’

The Patriots also saved $1.9 million against the cap by releasing Banta-Cain. It could be the first of several moves the team makes to give it some freedom under the cap.

The Patriots are now about $9.5 million under the cap. That is before draft picks and perhaps left tackle Matt Light are signed, but includes guard Logan Mankins’ $10.1 million franchise tag number. That could be converted into a bonus if the sides finally play nice and agree on a long-term contract. It’s the smart and right thing to do.

Guard Nick Kaczur ($4.4 million cap figure) was told before the lockout that he likely would need to take a pay cut to remain on the roster. Safety James Sanders ($3.5 million) and tight end Alge Crumpler ($3 million) have cap numbers that could concern the team, but both bring leadership and skill.

Keep in mind that under the transition rules, the Patriots don’t have to be under the $120.4-million cap until the league year starts Aug. 4. And each team can take up to a $1 million cap charge each for up to three players who have played five or more seasons - such as Sanders and Crumpler.

When teams are allowed to begin signing free agents Friday, the Patriots expect to be busy. Manny Lawson (49ers), Matt Roth (Browns), and Mathias Kiwanuka (Giants) are the top 3-4 outside linebackers available.

Roth makes the most sense since he’ll likely be inexpensive, and easily can adapt to the Patriots’ scheme after playing for former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, and Belichick buddy Nick Saban in Miami.

Whether the Patriots go with what they have or add someone else, Belichick will concoct a way for them to rush the passer better this season. Even if he shows up with a really nice tan.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Shalise Manza-Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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