2010 NFL Question Marks: New England Patriots

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 12: Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches his players during the preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on August 12, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the Patriots’ pass-rushing concerns.

Bill Belichick is notorious for being able to mask a defense’s weaknesses due in large part because he to his schemes. Even if a player is lacking in physical tools, as long as they do their jobs within his schemes, the Patriots are usually fine.

But a defense’s ability to generate a pass rush is something not even Belichick can scheme for. And pass rush is by far New England’s biggest weakness on defense, if not the team’s biggest weakness on a whole.

The Pats busted out their checkbooks in 2007 to sign former Ravens’ outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who turned out to be a dud for most of his time in New England. Now he isn’t even on the roster and once again outside linebacker is an area of concern for Belichick’s Patriots.

After recording 9.5 sacks last season, Tully Banta-Cain is virtually ensured the starting right outside linebacker spot. But can he duplicate the success he had in 2009? If he can’t, then his limitations against the run will be expounded and Belichick might be left scrambling for a replacement mid-season.

That said, Banta-Cain is coming off a career year and has earned the coaches’ trust. It’s the left outside linebacker position that is of most concern.

If the season were to start today, 26-year-old Rob Ninkovich would get the start on the left side. He’s a blue collar-type of defender in the mold of former Patriot Mike Vrabel, although he’s not very athletic and certainly can’t be counted on to provide the consistent pass-rush that the Patriots desperately need.

That’s why the more athletic Jermaine Cunningham will be given every opportunity to unseat Ninkovich in preseason. The team’s second round pick this year played defensive end at Florida, but will make the switch to outside linebacker at the pro level. He racked up 19.5 sacks in his final three seasons with the Gators and if he proves he can grasp Belichick’s complicated system, then he’ll likely emerge as the regular season starter.

The long shot to win the starting LOLB job is 25-year-old Marques Murrell, who made 17 special teams tackles and 21 tackles playing linebacker for the Jets last season. As of now, it appears doubtful that Murrell would leapfrog Ninkovich and Cunningham on the depth chart, but he’ll have his opportunities.

Belichick has had success with linebackers as recently as the 2008 draft, when he selected Jerod Mayo with the 10th overall pick. He went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year that season and if Cunningham can find success as quickly as Mayo did, then the Patriots could be in decent shape at the outside ‘backer position.

But as it stands right now, it stands to reason that the Pats will have trouble rushing the pass with only four guys. Far be it for anyone to question Belichick and New England’s methods, but given the current state of the defense it’s a little surprising that the Pats didn’t address their pass-rush needs more in April.

In other Patriots-related news, left defensive end Ty Warren is out for the season and will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum. The injury is a massive blow to New England’s defense.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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