By far, the largest criticism of the Patriots draft this weekend was the fact that Bill Belichick did seemingly little to address New England’s pass-rush woes. However, it’s quite possible, (and actually quite probable) that Belichick has a much different view of his defense than all the pundits out there. Here’s a look at what “The Genius” may have been thinking when he decided to pass on prospects like Cameron Jordan, Jabaal Sheard, and Brooks Read.
1. Improve from within – By and large, the Patriots don’t have much in the way of “starter” experience at the OLB position. Jermaine Cunningham, perhaps the team’s most promising prospect, just completed his rookie season. Rob Ninkovich, who arguably had the best season in 2010 out of the crew, started for the first time last year despite being a six-year vet. Both of those players have been pegged as the likley starters for next seasons, and it’s reasonable to expect (especially in the case of Cunningham), that we should see some continued improvement at the position.
2. You can’t pass if there’s no one to pass to – This could be the thinking with the 2nd round seleciton of Ras-I Dowling. The Jets have had create success with their duo of Revis/Cromartie. It could very well be that the Pats are trying to replicate that blackhole of a secondary by pairing McCourty with another 1st round talent. The return of Leigh Bodden should also bolster the cornerback position. If the Patriots are able to shut-down passing attack with good coverage, the pass-rush becomes less important, as their opponents won’t have anyone to pass to.
3. Returning players – I’ve already touched on the return of Leigh Bodden, who should challenge McCourty for the title of the team’s #1 DB. It’s also worth noting the Pro Bowler, Ty Warren, is scheduled to return from IR and bolster the defensive line. Wilfork and Warren create a formidable 2/3rd’s of the Pats’ D-line, and given the huge crop of linemen on the roster, it’s not unreasonable to expect one of them to be able to step up and fill that final starting spot.
4. Experience necessary – The Patriots run one of the most complex defensive schemes for an OLB. If the NFL does end up with a shortened off-season, which it likely will, then any rookie OLB is going to have a very difficult time getting up to speed. This likely played a key role in Belichick’s decision to pass on some of the top OLB prospects as their contribution would have been minimal in 2011. A lot of people have keyed in on the pass-rush as a key for the Patriots to “win now” while Brady is still in his prime. Perhaps by going for a corner with the #33 over a pass-rusher, Belichick actually was focusing on picking up a player who can help the team “win now”.