By: Derek Havens
For those people who think this is the same New England Patriot team of old, you may want to take look at the outside linebacker position of the current roster.
At one point in the previous decade, the team had what many thought around the league as an embarrassment of riches at the position. Names such as Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest are now in the past, and fans following the current roster have turned to veterans Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich, and Pierre Woods. Along with these four is 22 year old Jermaine Cunningham, who was selected by the Patriots 53rd overall from Florida in the previous draft. As of now, these five together will compete for playing time this season.
However, on July 29th reports broke at the start of training camp that Derrick Burgess is considering retirement, which hurt their depth, which they don’t have a lot of. They have other guys like Woods who has filled in nicely, but not to the extent that they need him to perform during his first four NFL seasons with New England.
With Derrick Burgess contemplating retirement, the Patriots could use some early contributions from rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. (Photo: Icon/SMI)
As for Cunningham, he’s entering the NFL into what many believe is one of the more complex defenses in the league. Above and beyond the complexity of Belichick’s scheme, as Cunningham will be converting to a 3-4 outside linebacker position – which I believe is one of the hardest to do coming from a college system. I do think that Jermaine Cunningham can contribute, but to expect him to be an every down player from day one is absurd. It is never safe to assume, but lets take an educated guess Burgess retires based on the fact he is not in camp. Therefore, Ninkovich and Banta-Cain are the two players who will be starting September 12th against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Is that enough? My answer is simple, no. It seems Bill Belichick agrees with me as the rumor mill churned days ago that Burgess could hang up the cleats, the Patriots put in a waiver claim for Alex Hall of the Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, Hall was rewarded to the New York Giants, however; this shows the Patriots are looking for outside linebackers.
Bill Belichick sparingly uses rookies in games but that could very well change in the near future, as Cunningham could be thrust on the field earlier than expected. That, of course, might not be such a bad thing as he could end up having a more hands on approach. One might say that with all the “depth” at the middle linebacker position, Belichick could easily slide one to the outside. However, Bill seems to have a model for outside linebackers that are somewhere in the neighborhood of 6’4 265 lbs. Gary Guyton is a player who comes close at 6’3 245lbs, but that may not be good enough for Belichick. That statement would seem to reign true as he did the rarity of looking outside the ball club for a player to bring in just days ago. Still, there is a chance Burgess could return to the team and contribute. Although, there could be a training camp surprise that will give the position much needed bodies.
Overall, this is the weakest position on the team and the teams’ playoff hopes are dependent on how well this unit performs in my eyes. The team will need to generate a pass rush to succeed and go deep in the playoffs, and I believe the defense will be the deciding factor on how well this team does in the coming months as that defense tries to put pressure on opposing QB’s.
So outside linebacker might not have the training camp battles that the safety or middle linebacker position may be facing, but fans should hold a spotlight as the team’s fate could be determined by it.