What are the Patriots’ Options at Outside Linebacker?
Another NFL Draft has come and gone with the Patriots neglecting the pass-rushing outside linebacker position (sixth-round selection Markell Carter aside), much to the criticism of fans and analysts alike. Whether it was the fact that Patriots misjudged when certain players would be available, couldn’t trade up to get a player, or simply didn’t like the available prospects, the Patriots came up empty handed and are still at a status quo that included the worst 3rd down defense in the NFL. Belichick is, in part, relying on the further development of players like second-year man Jermaine Cunningham. He also noted in his post-draft conference that the draft was only one piece of the team-building puzzle. Where does the team go from here?
The first option, of course, is simply going with what’s on the roster and hoping for further player development. I certainly think that all are hoping for players like Cunningham to progress, but the current roster cannot remain as is going into Week One of the regular season. I don’t think that that’s Belichick’s plan. I am 100% certain that he will add to the roster via free agency and/or veteran trades. Back in March when the original start of free agency was still an option, I did a position audit for outside linebacker, including some free agent options available. You can see that HERE. Jason La Canfora put together a list of free agents using the 2010 free agency rules, and you can see that HERE. Keep in mind that the Patriots once again have two picks in each of the first two rounds of next year’s draft, so if they covet a player, they could try and make a blockbuster trade.
Here are my thoughts on the next steps, including possible free agent signings and some outlandish (but in the realm of possibility) trades:
- In terms of a solid free agent signing, I think Browns OLB Matt Roth makes a lot of sense. He is more of a solid depth signing than an answer to the pass rush. Roth has spent his entire career playing in a 3-4, and in many cases was in one that is similar to what is run by the Pats. He started his career in Miami under Belichick disciple Nick Saban and then most recently played for another Belichick understudy, Eric Mangini. He already has an understanding of the defense and would make a smooth transition. I would liken his impact to that of Roman Phifer: no flash, but a solid, steady contributor.
- I don’t think the Patriots are going to spend any time or money going after a veteran defensive end who would have to convert to outside linebacker. The only instance I could see that happening is if the player has some background standing up or has eyes on playing him in a bunch of sub-packages with his hand on the ground until he’s comfortable standing up. In that instance, I’m thinking of a player along the line of the Giants’ Matthias Kiwanuka or the Vikings’ Ray Edwards.
- In the outlandish, WOW! trade department, the only two options I feel that could actually become reality are the Chiefs’ Tamba Hali or the Raiders’ Kamerion Wimbley. A move for one of these two players, especially Hali, would have to be a blockbuster and a definite showing that the Patriots are expecting a Super Bowl within the next year or two. Hali had 14 1/2 sacks last season under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, but he would be really tough to pry from Kansas City. If the Chiefs wanted to try a swap of Hali for Logan Mankins, the Pats’ franchised and disgruntled guard, that could be an option. With Scott Pioli running the personnel in KC, a trade isn’t completely out of the question. The Raiders and the Patriots are frequent trade partners, so Wimbley is another possibility. Again, it would likely take a significant package to get him, but he brings 3-4 experience and ability to get to the QB (9 sacks in 2010).
- I would count LaMarr Woodley out of the trade possibility category. The Steelers are not likely to let him go, especially to the Patriots. Even if they were having contract issues with him, that would likely also preclude the Pats from going after him.
The Patriots are likely to do something in free agency, and it will probably be something that nobody sees coming. That kind of seems to be how they operate. The question is what strategy will they employ. Will they go for the lower- to mid-tier free agents, as has been their usual means of doing business, or do they try and make a big splash a la 2007?