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NFL Draft 2011: Outside Linebacker; Heavy or Light?

There is a lot of debate about which outside linebacker the Patriots should take in the NFL Draft. The top prospects who may be available for the Patriots are Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, and Justin Houston. I'll throw Von Miller out as a name, but the general consensus is that there's no chance that he drops out of the top 5. Beyond the top 5 are players like Akeem Ayers, Brooks Reed, Sam Acho, Jabaal Sheard, and Greg Romeus. The question for the Patriots is if any of these players are good fits for the defense and, if they are, are they worth taking?

The way I look at the Patriots' outside linebackers, they can be categorized as Elephants, Pass Rushers, and Covers.

Elephants: Jermaine Cunningham, Eric Moore

Pass Rushers: Tully Banta-Cain, Marques Murrell

Covers: Rob Ninkovich

An Elephant's role in the Patriots defense is to push the pocket against the quarterback to generate pressure, while maintaining their position against the run and outlet receivers. A Pass Rusher will be asked to try and reach the quarterback. A Cover will be asked to drop into coverage and possibly press the edge against an opposing tight end. Inside Linebacker Gary Guyton could be considered a Cover due to his role as the primary linebacker asked to trail a tight end into coverage.

But looking at the roster, what positions are of need? What can be upgraded? What players deserve a look?

Let's see after the jump!

I'll go ahead and say it: my thought is that the Patriots are fine at the elephant position. Cunningham showed a tremendous amount of promise and Moore did a fantastic job of generating pressure. This means that all prospects who only would be asked to stop the run and collapse the pocket aren't really viable draft selections early in the draft. There's just not a lot of need.

There is a lot of need, however, for pass rushers and cover backers. Tully Banta-Cain was not very successful in rushing the quarterback this past season and Marques Murrell was a camp-body who was asked back on the roster at the end of the season due to injury. While Ninkovich performed well, he was phased out of the defense as the season wore on as opposing defenses took advantage of his inability to both set the edge and reach the quarterback.

As a result of that need, I believe that the Patriots will primarily look for prospects who can both rush the passer and drop into coverage. I believe that setting the edge will be less of a priority, but I do expect the player to be able to handle a blocking tight end. Due to the nature of this player, they break the traditional OLB mold that Belichick looks for in a player. I believe that height, weight, and wing span will be less important since they won't be asked to take on offensive tackles. I believe that speed, agility, and cover skills to be the most important qualities. This player won't be assuming the traditional TBC, Cunningham, Moore, or Mike Vrabel role. Think of a larger Gary Guyton with a better pass rushing ability.

Here are some prospects that I think are worth looking further into:

Akeem Ayers - 6'4, 255 lbs; Late 1st/Early 2nd

Strengths: Able cover back, able pass rusher, great size

Weaknesses: Slow, lacks a final step to sack the quarterback, limited pass rush technique

Martez Wilson - 6'4, 250 lbs; Early 2nd

Strengths: Blazing speed, very good cover back, very good pass rusher, good size, great final step to sack the quarterback

Weaknesses: Little OLB experience, needs to work on releasing from initial contact

Chris Carter - 6'1, 245 lbs; 3rd-4th

Strengths: Pass rushing fiend, very coachable and has been working with Willie McGinest on his coverage skills, explosive player, solid against the run

Weaknesses: Little experience in coverage, needs better run defense instincts, (not really a negative, but he could be another Dane Fletcher and the Patriots don't need another Fletcher)

Dontay Moch - 6'1, 250 lbs; 3rd-4th

Strengths: Blazing speed, asked to drop into coverage at times from the DE spot, tremendous pass rush potential

Weaknesses: Not very good when dropping into coverage, playing weight is around 230, not very strong against the run, can get washed out of plays.

Kelvin Sheppard - 6'2, 250 lbs; 3rd-4th

Strengths: Great speed, good cover back, solid pass rusher, reliable run defender, leader of the team

Weaknesses: May be a little overaggressive and run out of his lane, needs to get stronger to disengage from blockers

K.J. Wright - 6'2, 245 lbs; 3rd-4th

Strengths: Able cover back, able pass rusher, great in pursuit

Weaknesses: Slow, not very stout against the run

Mason Foster - 6'1, 245 lbs; 3rd-4th

Strengths: Instinctive player, which makes up for his speed, great tackler, very capable cover back, goes for the ball while tackling

Weaknesses: Slow, weak pass rush skill set, not strong enough to set the edge or hold the point of attack against the run

Mark Herzlich - 6'4, 250 lbs; 3rd-5th

Strengths: Leader, great instincts, always around the ball, able pass rusher, able cover back

Weaknesses: Slow and recovering, has lost his explosion and finishing strep, unknown if he'll get it back

If I had to choose any of these players, I'd go with Martez Wilson due to his extremely potential on top of his already more than solid production. He has the speed, agility, and experience to drop into coverage and he has nose to make the tackle against the run. He's a project the Patriots would be willing to undertake because he has the ability to rush the quarterback and drop into coverage; he just needs experience. His skill set is there as an explosive outside linebacker.

If not Wilson, then a player like Chris Carter or (someone I need to look more into) Kelvin Sheppard could be viable options. Carter's on the raw side since he'll be making the transition from DE, but he's coachable. He may be a little slow and I'm not sure if the Patriots would want to take a player so raw. Sheppard, on the other hand, is an extremely intriguing prospect who I'll have to look into more. He, like Wilson, is projected to play ILB in the NFL, but he may have the ability to move outside and play OLB.

The Patriots play an intriguing defense that spends half of its time in the 3-4 and the other half in its sub 3-3-5 or 4-3. They require versatile players who can play in all three sets, like Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Guyton's value increases because he can drop into coverage in the 3-4, spy the outlet receiver in the 4-3 and rush the passer in the 3-3-5. I believe a player like Wilson or Sheppard could be an upgrade over Guyton as OLBs in the sub packages, while also filling the coverage/pass rushing OLB spot in the base 3-4.

Do you think they should still go for an Aldon Smith-type player? What do you think of a player like Brooks Reed? Who do you think would fit well with the Patriots?