What Role For TBC?

Ask any Patriots follower to rattle off the names of the key defensive players and you'll hear names like Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork. Tully Banta-Cain was considered afterthought by many. Yet the former backup had an outstanding season in 2009, and hopes it will repeat after signing a new deal to return.

A year ago, Tully Banta-Cain signed a one-year deal with the Patriots after getting his dismissal from the 49ers.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity that came with his second tour of duty in New England, the former seventh-round pick went on to become just the seventh player in team history to record a double-digit sack season.

After joining the ranks of Hall of Famer Andre Tippett and recent championship cornerstones like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel, the 29-year-old Banta-Cain cashed in this spring with a three-year deal to remain in New England that could be worth up to $18 million and included a $6 million signing bonus.

Though he'd seem to have both financial and roster security, the outside linebacker who originally joined the Patriots in 2003 isn't about to change his mental approach.

"It doesn't really change much because you still have to go out and prove yourself in camp and the competition is going to be tough and nothing is guaranteed," Banta-Cain said, a year after his 10 sacks nearly doubled his previous six-year total of 12.

"I'm just going to take the same approach I do every year. I learned a lot from last year just being on a one-year deal and having to prove myself. I figure if I have that same approach every year I'll have similar success.

"I'm not surprised that I got 10 sacks. I've always felt that I was capable of putting up those kind of statistics. Now it's just a matter of my mentality being the same and having the same approach and just working hard. And hopefully I'll do better."

That's expected of both Banta-Cain and the rest of New England's young, questionable group of pass rushers. After two years of reported offseason flirtations with guys like Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor, the Patriots are going with a group that would seem to be the team's biggest question mark. Banta-Cain is joined by veteran Derrick Burgess, but beyond that the group includes rookie Jermaine Cunningham and other unproven options like Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich, Shawn Crable and Marques Murrell.

Banta-Cain is well aware of the critical uncertainty among fans and media in regards to the pass rush.

"I've been aware of it. You know, I hear it in the wind," Banta-Cain said of talk of the group's shortcomings. "But I think that as long as we improve on what we did last year and try to make sure our focus is the same and we just look at what we didn't do well and try to make it better, I think overall things will be better.

"I think everyone who's here is here for a reason. If you are on this team it's because you are going to help us win and you are going to make us better on defense and offense. The coaching staff and organization feels like they got the right guys and I do too."

Banta-Cain expects himself to be one of the right guys to help a New England defense that's been in a bit of a transition in recent years get things moving in the right direction. And the expectations he feels, the goals he sets for himself have nothing to do with his new contract.

"I feel pressure every year. Playing for (Bill) Belichick, you're going to feel pressure whether you are paid or not paid. I think this is the right place for that kind of environment, for that kind of mentality," Banta-Cain said. "I put pressure on myself every year. I learned a lot last year and I had to prove myself. I'm going to capture that mentality that I had and I'm going to use it every year."

And if he could notch another double-digit sack season Banta-Cain will establish himself as one of the foundations of New England's new-age defense that's no long anchored by the likes of Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi or Rodney Harrison.

"There are different last names but it's the same system, it's the same coach. A lot of it has to do with that. We're just here to do our job and the assignments that are given," Banta-Cain concluded. "Hopefully the guys that are here will emerge as the new Bruschis, Harrisons, those kinds of guys. That's what it's all about."

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