NFL context: Pats & outside linebackers

June, 29, 2010
6/29/10
8:45
AM ET
Seventh in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Projected starters: Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain

Top backups: Pierre Woods, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Shawn Crable, Marques Murrell

NFL chatter: One of the first questions that comes up in discussions with scouts, coaches and media members covering the NFL is how the Patriots will generate a pass rush. This is the primary position in which teams looking for help in that area often find it. Like the Dolphins, the Patriots enter training camp relying on the development of young players at the position, which creates an element of the unknown.

Overall depth chart: Banta-Cain is the team's best rusher. He played approximately 67 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2009 and while he is projected to start this year, the coaching staff figures to manage his playing time on early downs to maximize his pass-rush impact. Burgess is primed to see his role expand, and if he does, it could coincide with some scheme tweaks because if Burgess is playing the traditional 3-4 outside linebacker role -- in which he's dropping back in coverage often -- that figures to hurt the team. After Banta-Cain and Burgess, it's a question of development. How fast can Cunningham, a second-round draft choice, help? Is Ninkovich, who played approximately 12 percent of the defensive snaps in 2009, ready to do more? Will Crable finally emerge?

Final analysis: The position with arguably the biggest question mark on the roster. The development of Cunningham, and what he might contribute to the pass rush, looks like the greatest unknown which could potentially boost the group. Compared to the rest of the NFL, it looks like a group that would be in the bottom third of the league right now.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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