Pass rush, or lack thereof, has been a common storyline with the Patriots for several seasons in a row now. With many mock drafts and experts projecting the high selection of a pass rusher in April's draft, I decided to look at the players at the position currently to try and get a feel for who might lose out on their roster spot when a rookie is added at the position.
In recent years, Belichick has generally kept about 4 OLBs on the roster; sometimes fewer, and only a 5th if they're more of a special teams player (Marques Murrell, for example). So we'll go on the assumption that there are 4 available roster spots, likely 3 of which will be held by returning players.
Read about the players after the jump.
Tully Banta-Cain (95) played the most snaps of any OLB this season and also had the most sacks. Looking back on those plays, however, indicates that more often than not they resulted from pressure coming from other rushers or were "coverage" sacks. He had 4 solo and 2 assists but watching them over again, it looked like really 2 or maybe 3 were really good plays on his part (ex: the Green Bay game, where at the very end he shed his blocker to tackle and strip the QB who was scrambling). Generally his type of performance would warrant a place on the team next year, but he also has a large contract that he signed after last season that may change that picture. If he is able to bring more pressure on a play-by-play basis and improve in his edge setting he could be a starter again next season.
Rob Ninkovich (50) played fewer than half of the defensive snaps this season but had 4 solo sacks, one fewer than Banta-Cain. Upon further review, his were also a result of greater individual play; 2 of his 3 against the Dolphins this season involved good speed and sharp rush moves to get to the QB, beating a FB on the edge and LT Jake Long, as was his sack against Green Bay. When you consider he also grabbed 2 interceptions (against the Dolphins; revenge much?), Ninkovich looks like a solid addition to the team, even if he does, at times, struggle against the run and with his general consistency. He doesn't get paid nearly as much as Banta-Cain either.
Jermaine Cunningham (96) had an up and down rookie year. Missing the preseason, he was inactive week 1 but came on strong after that. He surpassed Banta-Cain as a starter against Buffalo in week 3, and pressured Fitzpatrick into throwing a bad interception to Patrick Chung in the end zone. He had his best game against Baltimore week 6, beating Michael Oher for his only sack of the year and proving himself a beast against the run. However, injuries hampered the latter part of his season and his playing time suffered down the stretch. He was the best OLB on the team setting the edge and, though only getting a single sack, forced several INTs (including Manning's game-winner to James Sanders). He has the most upside of any OLB on the team currently and needs to make the second year leap going into 2011.
Eric Moore (98) was added late in the year but contributed immediately. He sacked Jay Cutler in his first game as a Patriot and added got to Matt Flynn the following week as well. Both games showed his ability and, in the few games he was around for, he looked to be the best pass rusher on the team. Assuming he isn't paid a huge amount and with some more time to become comfortable in the 3-4 defense Moore could be a surprise contributor next year.
Cunningham, with his potential and solid overall play in 2010, is a lock to make the team going into next season. Ninkovich, a constant high-effort player, is likely also assured a roster spot. In my opinion, the final space is going to come down to Banta-Cain and Moore. Banta-Cain has more experience with our defense, but also gets paid perhaps above his on-field value; his stats are down from last year. Moore looked good in 2 games, but was never asked to do much besides run at the Quarterback. Will his relatively lower price tag make him a keeper over Banta-Cain? Perhaps, but it will ultimately come down to any offseason additions the team makes.
If the past few seasons have taught us anything, it's that our need for a pass rusher in no way guarantees Belichick will draft one. And who knows, maybe instead he'll get some beast of a D-lineman who can make Kyle Arrington look like Dwight Freeney.