The Patriots missed out on Jason Taylor, who could've filled a need as a pass-rush specialist, so now they must look within to fill the hole left at outside linebacker following the Mike Vrabel trade.
Oddly enough, the Patriots haven't done much to address this need other than signing former castoff Tully Banta-Cain. Trading for former Pro-Bowl star Julius Peppers appears to be a pipe dream.
The remaining candidates are Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Vince Redd and Banta-Cain. None of them have Vrabel's experience, but they have their own skill sets that could make them viable options to become full-time starters.
The leading candidate is Woods, who replaced Adalius Thomas last year when the veteran linebacker broke his arm. Woods' chance to shine got cut short, however, when he broke his jaw late in the season.
From a physical standpoint, Crable is a freak of nature at 6-feet-5 and 243 pounds, but injuries derailed his rookie season in 2008 and he never played one solitary down. With questions about his durability and experience, it's unlikely he'll do enough in camp to supplant any of the other candidates.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) is brought down by New England Patriots linebacker Shawn Crable (98) and lineman Kenny Smith (95).,
Aug. 7, 2008. The Ravens defeated the Patriots 16-15. (AP Photo/Christopher James Savoia)
As for Vince Redd, he's a possibility, too, and probably more of a realistic candidate than Crable. Redd also filled in last year and made a relatively decent impression on the coaching staff. The only difference between Redd and Crable is Crable has more experience within the system and is a superior pass-rusher, which is why the veteran gets the edge in this department.
In one sense, Vrabel will be replaced by a much younger, faster player, but the Patriots are losing out on Vrabel's intelligence and savvy. Even at his advanced age, Vrabel had an uncanny understanding of the system and provided insight that will be difficult to replace.
The bottom line is Thomas must take over as a more vocal presence in 2009 -- even more so than he was a year ago. After struggling to adapt in his first season with the Patriots, Thomas turned it up last year and had arguably his best season in terms of overall productivity until he got hurt. The Patriots need him now more than over.
Cesario Provides A Look Inside
--Patriots player personnel director Nick Cesario broke down the team's scouting process at an open forum this past week and said they will explore all options to replace Mike Vrabel.
"We still have June, July, August ... there's free agency, trades, there's other opportunities to build a football team," he said. "And the outside linebacker position, especially in college, it's tough to evaluate, it really is. They're all really defensive ends in college. There aren't many guys who are 6-(feet-)4, that are long and can run 4.6 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). Those guys are hard to find."
"I think we feel comfortable with the football team where it currently stands, but we still have another three or four months before we actually play a football game. A lot can happen between now and then."
Sanders Is A Key Component
--Some fans forget, but safety James Sanders nearly left New England in lieu of other options on the free-agent market.
Sanders decided to stay and will now be asked to be a leader in a secondary where he is suddenly the elder statesman.
"I was weighing all my options," Sanders said. "I had a couple -- not as many as I thought would have been there going into the offseason. I just realized this was the best place, the best fit for me the next couple of years, to get an opportunity to prove myself in a system I already know. It puts me in the best position personally to make plays as well as help the team win."
Another Rookie Pickup
--The Patriots struck a minor deal last week by signing free agent wide receiver Terrence Nunn, who spent four years at the University of Nebraska from 2004 to 2007.
Nunn appeared in 49 games with 37 starts and caught 136 passes for 1,762 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's second on the school's all-time reception list and just seven shy of the all-time record.
The downside is he spent all of 2008 out of football because no team signed or drafted him following his senior season. He could compete for a spot on special teams.
The Intelligence Factor
--Patriots rookie Darryl Richard was as active off the field as he was on it during his time at Georgia Tech.
When the school's president left his post, Richard was part of the search committee to help find a replacement. He also earned his undergraduate degree and an MBA in just over four years.
"I think that just helped build Darryl Richard into who he is today," Richard said. "The thing about me, when I get done with something, it's in the past. I pretty much close that chapter and move onto the next thing. And that's where I'm at right now. Trying to do what I can to win a job with this football team."
They Said It: "On the sideline, it can get crazy. He told me, and told my representative, that he sees me as one of those guys that, when things get rough, the team could look to." -- Sanders on head coach Bill Belichick's ringing endorsement during the offseason.
POLL Who will replace Vrabel?