Think you can guess what it is for the Patriots? I’ll bet you can:
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Technically, the Patriots didn’t ignore this position in the draft — they spent one of their three second-round selections on Florida’s Jermaine Cunningham — but this is still the weakest position on the roster. The star of the unit, Tully Banta-Cain, led the team with 10 sacks last season, but that was a one-year fluke. In his other six seasons, he never had more than 5.5 sacks, and he still has never started more than 10 games in a season.
The Patriots bring back Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods, and Rob Ninkovich at the position, are hoping to get anything (at all) from the oft-injured Shawn Crable, and added Cunningham and free agent special-teamer Marques Murrell there. Is it enough to bolster a sagging pass rush? Well, maybe the hope is that the edge rushers will get assistance elsewhere to create heat on passers, with possible interior help coming from Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren, and more of a hand coming from a young, rising secondary.
In talking to Falcons GM (and former Patriots personnel man) Thomas Dimitroff last week about his own team, he emphasized how, despite not having added a premier edge player, the hope was the rush for his team would be improved. “The big-time defensive end isn’t the only way to do it. … We’ve ramped up the interior, getting [Peria] Jerry back, bringing Corey Peters in and having [Jonathan] Babineaux back.”
The difference? Dimitroff’s team has John Abraham, coming off a bad year (5.5 sacks), but still capable of being a high-level edge rusher offenses have to account for, and Atlanta really is asking its youngsters (Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury) to complement him, not replace him. Can the Patriots get by without a guy like Abraham?
We’ll see. It’ll be tough to find one from the outside. The top names out there are Derrick Burgess (above), Leonard Little, Adewale Ogunleye, Greg Ellis and Chike Okeafor. The hope has to be that a guy like Cunningham develops.
But there is a piece of good news here, too. Following the draft, this probably the only real gaping hole the team has left.