The most pressing need for the Patriots heading into the 2011 season is an obvious fix on defense.
Last year, the Patriots failed to generate enough energy in their pass rush, allowing opposing quarterbacks to pick apart their developing secondary with relative ease throughout the first half of the season.
As the secondary jelled, the need for a stout pass rusher diminished, but depending solely on ball-hawking defensive backs to save the day is a bad idea, which means the Patriots should be targeting pass-rush specialists either through the draft or free agency.
The big question is how the Patriots will approach the restructuring of their defensive front. Will they stay in a 3-4 scheme or perhaps switch to a 4-3 to generate more of a pass rush from their defensive linemen?
The smart money suggests they'll stick with the 3-4 primarily because they have more depth at linebacker than they do up front. Plus, the system is more geared toward generating pressure from the outside linebackers instead of the defensive ends. Tully Banta-Cain, among others, didn't fill that void last year, but if the Patriots can find a game-changing linebacker via free agency, they'll be a step ahead of where they were last year.
History suggests if the Patriots do turn to the draft, they will stay away from drafting a pure outside linebacker and instead try to find an undersized college defensive end that can make the transition. Unlike teams such as the Colts, the Patriots value size more than speed up front, which is why ends such as Ty Warren and Richard Seymour have flourished in coach Bill Belichick's system.
The problem with some of the linebackers who are either on the market now or were on the market at the end of the season, such as Chad Greenway of Minnesota (he recently signed a one-year tender), is that they've primarily played in 4-3 systems, so they would need to adjust to the system, which could take time -- valuable time the Patriots don't necessarily have. Kansas City's Tamba Hali, who led the league in sacks last year, would've been a tremendous fit, but the Chiefs took him off the market by franchising him in February. The Bills tendered a restricted free-agent offer to Paul Posluszny, but even if he were available, his history with injuries would make him a risky acquisition.
Carolina's James Anderson could be the next big-time pass rusher in the NFL, but he's a restricted free agent, which means it would cost the Patriots a draft pick in order to sign him. Whether they value anyone on the current market enough to part with draft picks in exchange for their services remains to be seen.
The bottom line is the market is thin for teams looking for help at linebacker, so the Patriots might have no choice but to turn to the draft. Among the notable hybrids available in this year's draft are Von Miller of Texas A&M, North Carolina's Robert Quinn and Akeem Ayers of UCLA.