In April, we all watched Robert Quinn drop down the draft board with bated breath. We saw outside linebacker after outside linebacker drop off the draft board. We all knew what we were watching- we were watching coach Bill Belichick play his cards to pick a dark horse outside linebacker prospect in the middle rounds. Many of us weren't surprised that an OLB had yet to be drafted by the third round- but then the fourth and fifth rounds passed. I was stunned. I've justified it by saying that there's no point in taking a player who doesn't fit the defense, but I was convinced that there had to be someone.
We wanted a player who could step on the field and contribute as a rookie. Someone to be a cornerstone for the defense. We all have a strong feeling about Jermaine Cunningham and his ability to make the next step. Some believe that Rob Ninkovich can be a great piece of the Patriots defense, with the potential upside of a Mike Vrabel- and they're starting to convince me. Coach Belichick has voiced his support for late-season addition Eric Moore and hopes that he can have a productive off-season. Tully Banta-Cain has defined himself as a role player for the defense and is still able to contribute.
Then there's Belichick's answer to all the questions. Sixth round pick Markell Carter. A head scratcher to some, a question mark to everyone. Carter enters the position with a small amount of OLB experience and a smaller amount of expectations. Still, he has as good of a shot at making an impact as any other OLB on the roster.
This comes to my question- the Patriots often carry four OLBs with a fifth as an emergency free agent, and they only carry five when one of the top four is injury ridden. I'm not going to be surprised if and when one of these five outside linebackers is cut from the roster. I guarantee that they will be on Belichick's contact list in the middle of the season if they aren't picked up by another team.
Who will be the fifth outside linebacker? Which player will end up as the bubble player and fighting for his roster spot?I'm confident when I say that Cunningham and Ninkovich will be on the roster next season and they will both play large roles on the defense. I also believe that Belichick was serious when he stated that Moore deserved a long look for next season, especially because he was the most effective pass rusher on the roster at the end of the season. This means that I believe that the Patriots will narrow down the final OLB spot to Carter and Banta-Cain. No surprises there.
When decided between the two, I feel like a Pros and Cons list is an oversimplified method of decision- so I'm totally going to do it.
Tully Banta Cain
Experienced in the Patriots' system
Seems to produce when needed
Does well against teams the Patriots play consistently (AFC East, Steelers, Colts, etc)
Able to mentor the younger players
Old and slowing down
Not elite at any facet of the OLB game
Not a special teams contributor
Young and moldable with ideal size
Showing initiative by attending the off-season camps at Boston College, as well as learning the 3-4 defense after the college season ended
Solid pass rusher in college
Special teams contributor
Lacks game experience in the 3-4 defense
Must be groomed before he can contribute, which is tough in a short season
Feel free to add your own opinions because I'm sure I've left out some key facts for, or against, both of these players.
I'd be happy if the Patriots kept both of these OLBs on the roster, but since the Patriots probably can't fit five OLBs on the roster, and the fact that TBC will most likely find a job elsewhere and the Patriots haven't had luck with getting their late round picks to the practice squad, there's a large chance that if these players are cut, they will be wearing a different uniform next season.
For me, I'd keep Carter. He seems like a solid prospect with some explosion to reach the back field. I feel comfortable saying that Moore and Cunningham are currently better players and Carter adds special teams value. If I had to make the cut, I'd cut TBC and go with Carter and hope that he pans out as a project player. Of course, in an ideal world for the Patriots, both players could remain on the roster.
If you were the GM of the Patriots, and you had to make the cut of the five OLBs mentioned, which players would you keep and which player would you let go?