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Analyzing the Draft: Outside linebackers

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  April 13, 2011 02:46 PM

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As part of the run up to the NFL draft, a lot of you will give your opinions on where and when the Patriots need to draft certain players. Do they need to grab an outside linebacker first? Or maybe a running back? How about a defensive end? Can they wait on safety help?

To that end, we'll take a look at each position and break down where the 2010 opening day starters (some were altered based on the season) on each NFL team came from in the draft. We’ll also identify where each of the Pro Bowlers – the starters and backups on the initial team, not injury replacements – and All Pro players came.

This is the type of “study” that almost every team does before the draft. It’s a valuable, if blunt, tool to see where value can be had at each position. (I use the term “study” loosely because I only did this past year, not a three- to five-year stretch most teams have personnel department interns do).

I think you’ll see some surprises along the way.

PART III: Outside linebackers

(We added the top 20 sack and percentage category for this one, which combines any defensive position. There were 21 total. More on that later)

This is one of those positions where the cream rises to the top and is undoubtedly a premium position in the draft.

If you want to get an outside linebacker – and one that can rush the passer – you better take one early – in the first round.

NFL teams plucked 22 starters from the first round. That’s nearly as many as the second and third rounds combined (23), and three more than the fourth through undrafted combined (19).

We did not differentiate between 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebackers. The players are different physically, but almost all of them still have to defend the run, cover and provide at least some pass rush. And the sample size would be skewed.

There’s no doubt you can find a James Harrison or Cameron Wake in the weeds, but for every one of them you have two Clay Matthews, DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo, Tamba Hali or Terrell Suggs taken in the first round.

This position is obviously significant because the Patriots need to upgrade their pass rush, which ranked 14th with 36 sacks. The pass rush did get better in the second half of the season (23 sacks compared to 13) – so there could be some hope there -- but the Patriots loaded up with five sacks each against the Steelers, Packers and in the season finale against the Dolphins. They had 21 in the other 13 games and were last in the league in third down conversions allowed (47 percent).

Since pass rush is such a crucial need for all defenses, we decided to see if the top-heavy results continued for the league’s top sackers. These were looked at regardless of position because if a guy can get after the quarterback, you can find a place for him in any scheme.

The results did continue. Eight of the top 21 sackers were drafted in the first round, including five of the top six (Wake being the lone exception). Seven were drafted in the second through fourth round combined.

You combine all of this and there’s little doubt that if you’re looking to upgrade at outside linebacker and/or the pass rush, the odds are increased significantly if you draft that player in the first round.

So if the Patriots want to improve their pass rush, they should identify which player(s) they think can do that and either move up to take one, or sit tight at Nos. 17 and 28 and take their best shot.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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