Leading up to the start of the Patriots season, we will be previewing one or two Patriots players per day (counting down from #99), taking a look at their 2010 seasons and projecting what each player might bring to the table in 2011. Feel free to leave your own predictions in the comments section!
Name: Tully Banta-Cain
Age/HT/WT: 30 / 6'2" /250 lbs
Years Pro: 9
2010 Season: Like many of the Patriots pass rushers, Tully Banta-Cain had an up-and-down season in 2010... although Banta-Cain's season certainly seemed like more of a "down" following his 2009 campaign. In fact, it may have been that 2009 campaign that doomed Banta-Cain. When the Patriots first re-signed the Cal product after a two year stint in San Fransisco, his expectations were low as can be. In fact, most fans and experts alike didn't even think he would make the squad. However, Banta-Cain managed to defy the odds, making the team and ending up recording a 10 sack season for the Patriots. Nonetheless, half of those sacks came against the Buffalo Bills... so there is that to ponder.
Either way, last offseason, the Patriots felt it was necessary to bring Banta-Cain back. The team ended up re-signing Banta-Cain to a three year deal worth $15 million. Although Banta-Cain was fast approaching 30, I don't think many fans would have argued for re-signing Banta-Cain, even at that price. When the 2011 season began, Banta-Cain returned to his spot as starting right outside linebacker, and at the beginning of the season, even looked more impressive than he had in 2009. However, Banta-Cain, starting in week six off the Ravens, began to become less effective with his pass rush. He recorded just five sacks on the season and missed a fair amount of tackles.
Nonetheless, I'm not ready to throw Banta-Cain under the curb quite yet. Here's a look at the Patriots' top three outside linebackers, their total QB Pressures applied, divided by their total snaps rushing the passer (stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com):
Banta-Cain: 38 pressures in 479 rushes: 7.93%
Cunningham: 21 pressures in 277 rushes: 7.58%
Ninkovich: 15 pressures in 172 rushes: 8.72%
Are Banta-Cain's numbers great? No, not really. However, his total pressures number was good for fifth highest in the league of 3-4 outside linebackers according to PFF. In fact, based on pressures alone, he was a more effective pass rusher than Clay Matthews (36 pressures in over 550 rushes), although I am in no way suggesting that he's a better player or rusher. And keep in mind, that while a lot of his sacks were "clean-up" sacks, he had a lot of solid pressures that were near-sacks as well (examples: Dolphins week 4, Colts week 11). Even further, in Banta-Cain's 10 sack 2009 season, he only recorded 17 pressures (4.9% of snaps).
What does all of this amount to? Well, not a lot. Tully Banta-Cain didn't have a great season by any standards, but it wasn't all that bad either. He played more snaps than any other Patriots pass rusher / outside linebacker, and has had a clean bill of health for two consecutive seasons.
2011 Projected Role: While a lot of people see Banta-Cain on the roster bubble, for the reasons I highlighted above, I don't think he will be. Unless the Patriots make some type of flashy free agent acquisition (which I highly doubt), Banta-Cain will be used as the Patriots primary rusher off the right side in passing situations, most likely with his hand in the dirt. When it comes to full-time outside linebacker duties, Banta-Cain will likely be splitting time with Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore. Still, of those three, I see Banta-Cain playing the most total snaps and actually upgrading his play a bit from 2010 (while seeing a little less total playing time).
2011 Projected Stats: 16 games played, 4 games started, 42 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 2 passes defended
Bottom Line: Top pass rushing option in passing situations, rotational ROLB on 1st and 2nd downs.