When the Patriots look for talent, they're looking for the guys Bill Belichick loves, the big, fast, and smart. They also require a certain type of athlete, one who can adapt to change. IN New England's system, college defensive ends become outside linebackers, and there were plenty of those on display in Indianpolis last week.
On the heels of the 2010 Scouting Combine, opening free agency and heading toward the NFL Draft, there's little question what New England's top need is -- pass rush.
Of course the same could be said about the team a year ago when it reportedly flirted with the idea of adding Jason Taylor and Julius Peppers. When those veterans never came into fruition, the team had to settle for Derrick Burgess in training camp and the former Pro Bowler was a major pass rush disappointment.
Draft-wise the only high pick the Patriots have used on a 3-4 outside linebacker, a pass rusher, was Shawn Crable in the third round in 2008. He's spent his first two seasons on injured reserve.
Having not drafted a player at the team's top need a year ago, Bill Belichick talked about the difficulty of finding players that fit his ideals at the outside linebacker spot.
"I think that there were more shorter players, maybe a little less speed than what we've seen, maybe a little more power with good production," Belichick said after the 2009 draft. "There weren't a lot of 4.6, 4.65 (40 time) guys. There weren't a lot of 6-4, 6-5 guys. I'd say it was a much smaller pool of those types of players."
The same can be said in this year's 3-4 outside linebacker crop, because there simply all that many people on the planet who measure in at 6-4 and run the 40 in 4.6 seconds.
Meanwhile "undersized" 3-4 outside linebackers like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Elvis Dumervil, who led the NFL with 17 sacks last fall, are finding a high level of success despite less than ideal size.
"The reality is that pool of players, the 6-4, 260-pound guys that run 4.6, there's not many of them," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio admitted at the Combine." You're looking at a number of different qualities. You're trying to identify, 'OK, here's their skill set. Here's what they do well.' And then, you have to look at, 'OK, how are they going to fit with what you do defensively and schematically.' Some of the small guys ... like, I think Dumervil is a great example. A 5-11, 260-pound guy ... maybe he's not the prototypical outside linebacker type, but he can rush the passer. He was productive in college, and that production has translated over into the NFL. You look at a player like Dumervil, and he's got quickness ... he might not be the fastest guy, but he's got good playing strength and he's really good leverage and he uses that to his advantage.
"So there's different ways to skin a cat. You're looking for this ideal. The reality is that sometimes that ideal is hard to find. You have to be able to look at that player and say, 'Here's what they do well.' And then, once you've identified that, you try and fit it into your system and, 'OK, here's how we're going to use it to maximize his skill set.'"
According to NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, there are plenty of players for 3-4 teams to choose from at outside linebacker this spring.
"I think it's probably the deepest group of conversion guys I've seen since I've been doing this," Mayock said in Indy.
Now it's up to Belichick, Caserio and Co. in New England to figure out which one of those players makes most sense for a team with an extreme need and four of the first 53 picks in the draft. Just because the players don't quite measure up, doesn't mean they can't help a Patriots team that struggled mightily in pass rush and pass defense a year ago.
"Today, the game is all about space. We play a basketball game on grass. Really you have to have guys, whatever size they are," NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi said of 3-4 edge guys. I think that's a great defense to play, especially when you don't have prototype, if you are not looking for a prototype at the position. You know, 'I have to have a 6-4 outside linebacker.' That's not the case anymore."