Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham against the Ravens in 2010.
First in a nine-part series taking a quick look at each position, and how the Patriots may or may not address it during the 2012 NFL Draft:
Position: Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
Need Level: Very High
Lingering Questions: Who will step up to replace Mark Anderson's pass rush production? Can Jermaine Cunningham overcome his difficult 2011 season and develop into the fine player that Patriots fans saw flashes of in 2010?
State of the Position: The defensive end / outside linebacker position figures to be one of the first positions the Patriots will address in the 2012 NFL Draft. Rob Ninkovich returns as one starter - he could likely figure in at either outside linebacker spot. After that, things get a lot murkier. Mark Anderson departed for the Bills in free agency, while Andre Carter remains an unrestricted free agent. Jermaine Cunningham regressed in 2011, and appears to be entering a make-or-break year in 2012. Trevor Scott was recently picked up from the Raiders - he appears to have some potential as a low-risk, high-reward player. Markell Carter, a sixth round draft choice last year, had a learning year in 2011, and is a prospect with intriguing upside. Meanwhile, Aaron Lavarias and Alex Silvestro are solid camp competition. The team has some players with upside at the position, but it appears that the only sure thing at this point is Rob Ninkovich. Because of that, the team figures to address the pass rushing position at least once in the 2012 NFL Draft. Many Patriots fans are hoping that if the Patriots do add a pass rusher as expected, that someone can be a dynamic playmaker that is selected within the first two rounds of the draft.