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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Where will pass rush come from?

By Mike Reiss

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick surprised many by not using a high pick in this year's draft on a pass-rusher. Now he’s informed one of the team’s top rushers, nine-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain, that he will be released.

Although it might look that way on the surface, there is no truth to the rumor that the innovative Belichick is planning to experiment with a rushless defense in 2011.

Actually, Banta-Cain’s spot on the roster was never a certainty, mainly because of economics. His salary ($2.3 million) and cap charge ($4.3 million) didn’t fall in line with his on-field contributions in 2010. So Tuesday's news that Banta-Cain will be released when those moves can become official was far from a shocker; and surely Belichick has a plan on filling the void.

So where do the Patriots go from here at outside linebacker/rush defensive end?

They return top outside linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham, while veteran Eric Moore -- who joined the team last December and flashed some pass-rush skills -- is a top candidate to elevate into Banta-Cain’s sub-rushing role. Career special teamer Marques Murrell and 2011 sixth-round pick Markell Carter round out the depth chart.

That is likely too thin for Belichick’s liking, and puts added pressure on Cunningham in his second year, which makes it logical to think the Patriots will explore the free-agent market for 3-4 outside linebackers or 4-3 rush ends.

Seven-year veteran Matt Roth projects as a possible fit, given his background in the 3-4 defense with the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns. Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants) and Manny Lawson (San Francisco 49ers) are other notable options, or perhaps Belichick revisits Jason Taylor (New York Jets) if Taylor would consider it.

None of the options overwhelm, and they would mostly fit in to a specific role and build depth.

As for Banta-Cain, he called his two stints (2003-2006; 2009-2010) with the Patriots “great times.” His best season came in 2009, when he had 10 sacks.