Pats may need to adjust OLB prototype


INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Patriots drew up a prototype for what they seek in an outside linebacker -- arguably their greatest position of need -- the top five items on the list might look something like this:

1) Size in the 6-foot-4, 6-5 range

2) Speed to clock 4.65 in the 40-yard dash

3) Long arms to engage big, rangy offensive tackles

4) The strength to set the edge in the run game combined with the burst to rush the passer

5) Football should rank as one of the most important things in the player's life

Perhaps more than ever, finding a prospect that fits all those criteria is a challenge. Part of that is because almost half the teams in the NFL are running some variation of the 3-4 defense, making competition for those players fierce.

So the question was raised to Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio on Friday at the NFL combine: Should the Patriots alter the prototype?

"That's an interesting point," he responded, "because the reality is that there's not many of them."

Whether the Patriots actually alter their standard remains to be seen, but Caserio's acknowledgement raises a compelling point to consider as the team prepares for April's 2010 draft. Some of this draft's best pass-rushers, such as Michigan's Brandon Graham, don't fit the prototype.

So, say the high-motor Graham is available with the 22nd overall selection, two powerful forces would be colliding.

On one side is the Patriots' clear need for a better pass rush, which Graham would figure to help immediately. On the other is that Graham isn't the perfect fit at outside linebacker on early downs because he's short (6-1) and his arms aren't as long as would be desired (30½ inches).

In the end, Caserio said, the Patriots will look at what a prospect does well and then project how they could fit him into their system. So if a player like Graham was the choice, that might require tweaking the way the Patriots play their 3-4 defense, such as adopting more of a Steelers-like approach.

If they were willing to do that, more options would be available to them in a year that is considered deep for "conversion types" -- college defensive ends who project to 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL but might not necessarily fit the Patriots' prototype.

Caserio pointed to Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil as an example of a player who doesn't fit the prototype, but produced big results in the Broncos' 3-4 defense. Dumervil, at 5-11, 250 pounds, led the NFL with 17 sacks in 2009.

"He has good quickness. He might not be the fastest guy, but he's got good playing strength and he's really good [playing with] leverage and he uses that to his advantage," Caserio said. "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."

The last time the Patriots selected a player who best fit their prototype was 2008, when they picked Michigan's Shawn Crable in the third round. The 6-5, 243-pound Crable has yet to appear in a regular-season game for the Patriots, in part because of injury.

Maybe they go back to Michigan once again, but this time it wouldn't be for a player with the prototypical fit.

Caserio's remarks Friday made one wonder if the Patriots are at least considering the possibility.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.