In next month's draft, many fans and experts alike are projecting the Patriots to pick an outside linebacker with one of their six selections in the first three rounds. A lot of names have been thrown around in relation to the Patriots, and the thing is, a lot of these players vary in skillset. We've seen the Patriots look at smaller outside linebackers such as Chris Carter out of Fresno State, as well as bigger linebackers such as Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan or Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard. Why have the types of outside linebacker prospects varied so much?
The real reason that the Patriots can consider any type of outside linebacker in the 2011 NFL draft is because of the presence of 2010 second round pick Jermaine Cunningham. At 6'3" 267 lbs, Cunningham has the measurables and skills to play either the weak-side right or "will" outside linebacker, or the left or "strong" side outside linebacker.
In his rookie season, Jermaine Cunningham initially put his hand in the ground as a situational pass rushing defensive end. As a sub-rusher, Cunningham played both left end and right end. Starting in week two, Cunningham started playing outside linebacker. While a lot of people may see Cunningham as an "elephant" or left outside linebacker who is a bigger guy who can both stop the run and rush the passer, Cunningham had a lot of good plays as a right outside linebacker as well. For example, in arguably his best NFL game, week six against the Ravens, Cunningham primarily lined up as the team's right outside linebacker. In fact, his second quarter sack where he beat Ravens' left tackle Michael Oher came off the right side.
Find out what options Cunningham gives the Patriots after the jump!
Don't get me wrong: Jermaine Cunningham is a capable left outside linebacker. But lets not forget that he can play both sides about equally well. This is a very good thing for the Patriots. While Cunningham still has a long way to go in proving himself as a top-notch starter (only dropped in coverage 38 times in 2010 according to profootballfocus.com), there's no question that his ability to play both left and right outside linebacker will certainly open up options for the Patriots when looking at outside linebacker prospects in the 2011 NFL draft. While Eric Moore, Tully Banta-Cain, and Rob Ninkovich all still have roles on this team and all could be starters next year, for this purpose, I'm considering Cunningham as the #1 outside linebacker on the Patriots' depth chart.
Lets look at some of those potential outside linebacker options:
- ROLB: Aldon Smith, Missouri | LOLB: Jermaine Cunningham
- ROLB: Jermaine Cunningham | LOLB: Jabaal Sheard, Pittsburgh
- ROLB: Chris Carter, Fresno State | LOLB: Jermaine Cunningham
- ROLB: Jermaine Cunningham | LOLB: Ryan Kerrigan (interchangeable)
- ROLB: Dontay Moch, Nevada | LOLB: Jermaine Cunningham
- ROLB: Jermaine Cunningham | LOLB: Allen Bailey, Miami
- ROLB: Von Miller, Texas A&M | LOLB: Jermaine Cunningham
- ROLB: Jermaine Cunningham | LOLB: Cameron Jordan, California
- ROLB: Brooks Reed, Arizona | LOLB: Jermaine Cunningham (interchangeable)
These are just a few options and there are a lot more available combinations. If Bill Belichick does draft an outside linebacker, he likely will not take them with only one role or side in mind. Nonetheless, it is clear that having a player with Jermaine Cunningham's versatility on the roster makes it easier for the Patriots a player that doesn't necessarily fit the "mold" for the Patriots' typical 3-4 outside linebacker.