Heading into the 2010 offseason, the New England Patriots were thin at outside linebacker, the key pass rushing position in the 3-4 defense. After free agency and the NFL Draft, the Patriots were still thin at OLB. Now heading into their second preseason game after some promising early camp performances, the Patriots are thin at OLB. Recent camp injuries have nearly decimated the already putrid strength of the position, despite the return of DE/OLB Derrick Burgess. The real state of the OLB position was on display at the Patriots’ joint practices in Flowery Branch, Georgia with the Atlanta Falcons.
Neither veteran Tully Banta-Cain nor rookie Jermain Cunningham, the two players targeted to potentially start, made the trip down to Georgia. Cunningham was injured last Wednesday in a joint practice with the Saints and was held out of the first preseason game. He has yet to return to the field to practice, so the severity of his injury is unknown but not promising. Banta-Cain, the team’s lone proven veteran pass rusher at the position (10 sacks last season), injured what appeared to be his ankle Sunday during practice. He has not practiced since, though his absence from the trip could be precautionary so as not to further aggravate the injury, especially with the team so thin at OLB. Losing Banta-Cain for an extended period of time would be disastrous at this point.
Where does that leave the team? The team will be playing their second preseason game Thursday versus the Atlanta Falcons with four outside linebackers. Only Burgess, Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich, and Pierre Woods will be lining up at OLB, though Eric Alexander could fill in in a pinch. Murrell had a solid preseason game starting against the Saints last week and will likely start again Thursday. Burgess, despite returning to the practice field this past Sunday, will be thrust into the game, though likely with the second-string. I anticipate Rob Ninkovich lining up across from Murrell to start Thursday’s game. That, quite frankly, is not an ideal situation for the Patriots and not one they probably want to enter the season with. Unless a trade is made late in camp or there is a surprise preseason cut, what you see is what you get with the OLBs on this team.
With supposed back-ups getting more game time due to injuries, the bright side is that these players will have more playing experience come the regular season. Whether that translates into improved performances remains to be seen.