Commentary

Did Pats patch the pass-rushing hole?

Team added Florida OLB Cunningham on Day 2 of draft, but questions remain

Updated: April 24, 2010, 7:55 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Three rounds into the NFL draft, the New England Patriots look like they've become a tougher football team but one question still looms: Have they done enough to address their greatest trouble spot in 2009, the pass rush?

[+] EnlargeJermaine Cunningham
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJermaine had 19.5 sacks at Florida, but in New England he will be making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Of their five selections this year, the lone rusher is second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham, who had 19.5 sacks at Florida and now projects to make the challenging transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker. Is he the answer?

No one knows at this point, but it's clear how highly the Patriots view him.

In Bill Belichick's 11 drafts with the Patriots, he's never drafted a defensive end-to-outside linebacker convert as high as he did Friday with Cunningham (53rd overall), the powerful Gator who played opposite the more-heralded Carlos Dunlap.

"He's a strong player," Belichick said Friday when asked what Cunningham might add to the pass rush. "He has good edge rush ability. I think he's a very instinctive player, and he's been productive against a high level of competition, against a lot of NFL tackles."

Cunningham (6-foot-3, 266) probably wasn't the draft pick many Patriots followers had in mind when it came to curing the team's pass-rush ills. His name seldom came up in the discussion of top rush linebackers, so it's only natural that some might wonder if the team should have been more aggressive in this area.

Late Thursday night, after the first round of the draft, Belichick made the point that the Patriots have re-signed Tully Banta-Cain and added former Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Damione Lewis in free agency, two moves that address the pass rush. Now they'd added Cunningham to that mix, and while there's still time for other additions, there figure to be few high-impact options left in the draft.

Looking at what the Patriots could have done differently, one possibility was making a Philadelphia Eagles-like move up the board for Michigan's Brandon Graham, who went 13th overall. Such a move probably would have cost them their first-round pick, a second-round draft choice and possibly more, likely limiting their flexibility to create other assets for themselves through the deals they often like to swing.

Would that have been a bad thing?

Depending on how much you value the way the Patriots work the draft board -- and seeing a valuable 2011 second-round draft choice suddenly appear on next year's ledger --- the answer might vary.

Another option was selecting Texas Christian's Jerry Hughes with their first-round pick instead of cornerback Devin McCourty. He went 31st to the Indianapolis Colts, who will use him as a defensive end and not an outside linebacker.

It's a case where two teams run two different schemes, and the Patriots probably didn't view Hughes as the right fit for theirs as an outside linebacker. It was telling that the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, two teams which also run 3-4 defenses and are in need of a pass rusher at outside linebacker, also passed on the lightning-quick Hughes.

Graham and Hughes were the pass rushers with the fewest on- and off-field questions, and that's why, from this view, it starts there when it comes to the Patriots' decision-making in this area.

While some might mention Texas' Sergio Kindle, it was hard to see the Patriots going there given his medical concerns and other off-field issues. He slipped to the 43rd spot to Baltimore, and when almost every team in the league is backing off, that speaks volumes.

Utah's Koa Misi (40th, Dolphins) and Virginia Tech's Jason Worilds (52nd, Steelers) were others to consider, and they were in striking range to potentially trade up for them in the second round or simply select (it would be Worilds or tight end Rob Gronkowski).

The Patriots ended up with Cunningham to go along with their other four picks.

Whether that's enough, from a pure pass-rush perspective, remains the question.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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