Pat Kirwan of NFL.com writes on the "money" down in football -- third down -- and provides his best educated guess as to what will be the top 10 units in 2009.
The Patriots aren't part of the article, and it's understandable why.
Last year, the team ranked 26th out of 32 NFL clubs on third down, with opponents converting 44.4 percent of the time. For perspective, the Steelers were the top third-down defense, with opponents converting 31.4 percent of the time.
Kirwan breaks down the qualities he feels contribute to a top third-down defense, and using his thoughts as a guide, here is what the Patriots have in each area.
1) A premier pass rusher that forces the protection to slide to him. Adalius Thomas is the team's top rusher on third down and his return to health should help, although Thomas hasn't had premier production the last two seasons.
2) A very effective rusher on the opposite side, who can take advantage of the single block. Interest in Jason Taylor and Derrick Burgess reflects that the Patriots have thoughts of bolstering this area.
3) A wave of rushers that can keep the unit fresh. When the Patriots focused on pass-rushing in recent offseason work, Richard Seymour, Shawn Crable, Tully Banta-Cain, Vince Redd, Mike Wright, Le Kevin Smith and Myron Pryor were part of a group focused solely on that part of the game (Jarvis Green, who is usually part of this group, wasn't present for on-field work).
4) A power rusher inside to collapse a pocket. Seymour finished with a team-high eight sacks and usually rushes from an inside position. He's a top talent when it comes to this skill.
5) A nickelback who can take a slot receiver or blitz. Second-year cornerback Jonathan Wilhite worked in the slot in recent OTA/minicamp practices. Safety Brandon Meriweather also has the versatility to play the "star" position.
6) A matchup corner that can handle an elite receiver. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden project as the top corners at this time, with Springs the likely "matchup" guy. This looks like an upgrade from 2008 (Deltha O'Neal/Ellis Hobbs).
7) A creative coach that knows when to rush or drop back in coverage. Dean Pees returns for his fourth season as coordinator, although this is Bill Belichick's defense.
8) A front office that knows how to find the talent to build an effective third-down unit. The restructured front office of Bill Belichick/Nick Caserio/Floyd Reese has made this an offseason priority. How much better will be one of the top questions that must be answered in 2009.