Potential Patriots: Edge rushers

New year, same old story.

The Patriots need a pass rusher.

Since the departures of Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin, New England fans have clamored for a replacement at outside linebacker.

We thought Adalius Thomas was it.

Six-foot-two, 270 pounds with 4.6 speed, coverage skills and a knack for getting after the quarterback – how could you go wrong? That deal turned out to be a bust.

In 2010 the Pats took Jermaine Cunningham, a solid college player, one spot ahead of his more heralded Florida teammate Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap has gone on to be one of the better up-and-coming defensive ends while Cunningham has one career sack.

Then there was the 2011 draft. It was pegged as a pass rusher’s delite. Yet with the opportunity to trade up a few spots for Robert Quinn or Ryan Kerrigan, New England stayed at 17 and took offensive tackle Nate Solder.

While Belichick doesn’t put faith in young edge players, he was proven wrong last year. Von Miller took the league by storm with 11.5 sacks. Aldon Smith, who I thought would be a perfect Willie McGinest type, came within a half sack of breaking Jevon Kearse’s rookie record.

As far as the other first-rounders: Quinn notched five sacks while Kerrigan and Adrian Clayborn each had 7.5.

On day two of the draft, the Pats opted to take Ras-I Dowling even with Jabaal Sheard and Brooks Reed on the board. Dowling lasted two games before going on IR, while Sheard and Reed combined for 14.5 sacks.

Armed with two picks in the first rounds, the Pats have a lot of leeway in maneuvering around the board. This year’s crop of pass rushers isn’t nearly as impressive as last year’s, but the top guys on the board have a ton of upside even with holes in their resumes.

Let’s take a look at five Potential Patriot pass rushers.

1. Nick Perry, USC: On day three of the 2010 draft, reports surfaced the Patriots were about to select USC defensive end Everson Griffen before they traded out of the pick. Perry is a carbon copy of the former Trojan with a near-identical size, speed and production. A former top prospect, Perry goes 6-foot-3, 271 pounds with 4.64 speed. After redshirting in 2008, he took the Pac-12 by storm with eight sacks as a rotational player. His numbers dipped to only 25 tackles and four sacks in 2010 before he led the conference with 9.5 sacks as a redshirt junior. He certainly tests off the charts and would seem a likely candidate to play 3-4 OLB, but has questionable instincts and conditioning. He’s been projected to go in the second half of the first round, but after a great combine, I doubt he’ll be there at 27.

2. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: It’s always scary when a guy is a one-year wonder. But in a draft light on pure pass rushers, it’ll be hard for the nation’s leading sack man to escape the first round. If the selection was purely based on physical skills, Mercilus would be a Patriot. He’s 6-foot-4, 261 pounds and 4.68 speed. He had a ridiculous 2011 season with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles. The biggest problem with Mercilus is the fact he was a virtual unknown prior to his breakout campaign. During his first two years at Illinois, he registered two sacks. Is it simply a case of him putting it all together or will he be another Vernon Gholston?

3. Andre Branch, Clemson: The former Clemson Tiger is another example of a guy who fits the Patriots prototype in terms of his size/speed combo. He was a standout player on a talented Clemson defensive line, but he wasn’t always consistent. Branch’s frame (6-foot-4, 259 pounds) and speed (4.70) suggest he would be an ideal pass-rush linebacker. However, his game is somewhat limited to a speed rush, and recently drafted Clemson defensive linemen (Ricky Sapp, Phillip Merling, Gaines Adams) have failed to live up to expectations.


4. Vinny Curry, Marshall: Despite playing in Conference USA, the 6-foot-3, 266-pounder dominated the competition, finishing his career with 26 sacks. Curry’s game is predicated on strength and a relentless motor, but there are questions whether he has the athleticism and speed to be effective at the next level. He had a fantastic three-cone drill (6.90 seconds) and a solid short shuttle (4.40), but ran a disappointing 4.98 forty. If he can improve to the 4.7 area, he could move back up on draft boards. He’s a fringe first-rounder who will probably be selected early on day two of the draft.

5. Shea McClellin, Boise State: Football intelligence, motor and versatility define the Patriot way. They also define McClellin, a 6-foot-3, 260 pound outside linebacker/defensive end who terrorized the WAC with 20.5 career sacks. He’s adept at making plays in the backfield and has shown the ability to cover with two interceptions. McClellin surprised scouts with a strong showing at the combine where he ran a 4.63 forty. However, he was only average in agility tests and needs to get stronger after posting 19 reps on the bench. His character and playing style would make him a logical fit for the Patriots in round two.

Keep your eye on..

Olivier Vernon, Miami: I had the privilege of participating in a football camp with Olivier in 2008 in Deland, Florida. He put on a show, and despite a somewhat incomplete career for the Hurricanes, I think he’ll ultimately be a much better pro than college player. He has the ideal frame and length to become a 3-4 outside linebacker and his overall athleticism is definitely above average. As a sophomore, Vernon was second on his team with six sacks and fourth with 10.5 tackles for loss but was limited to six games in 2011 after serving a six-game suspension. He could be a guy to take a flyer on late in the draft and allow him to develop on the practice squad.

Chandler Jones, Syracuse: He has great length (6-foot-5) and bloodlines (brother Arthur is a defensive lineman for the Ravens and brother John is UFC light heavyweight champion). With only 10 sacks in 33 career games, Jones isn’t a great pass rusher but he has some tools to work with. He’s projected to go in the second round.

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