Pass rush a big question mark for Pats

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked Monday to describe where things stand with rush defensive end/outside linebacker Derrick Burgess, he said simply: "I don't know."

The same answer might apply to the following question: Can the team really win with its remaining personnel at the position?

Belichick wasn't asked that question about his untested group, but he did detail what he's seen from the five players lining up at rush defensive end/outside linebacker through the first five days of training camp.

It starts with eight-year veteran Tully Banta-Cain, who led the team with 10 sacks in 2009.

"Tully has really picked up where he left off last year. He gained a lot of experience and he's done a good job," Belichick said. "I think he's having a good camp. He's taken over a little bit of a leadership role as well, in terms of his experience, and I think he has a lot of confidence and that carries over to the other guys."

In his return to New England after two uninspiring seasons in San Francisco, Banta-Cain experienced a revival in playing 67 percent of the defensive snaps last season. This year, could he be as effective if that number spikes to the Mike Vrabel-like 80-90 percent range?

That is a fair question to ask when it comes to the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Banta-Cain. He's already proved to be effective as a sub rusher and occasional early-down option, and now the coaching staff must consider how having him play more might alter his impact as a pass-rusher.

If Banta-Cain doesn't see his playtime increase, perhaps that means second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham (53rd overall), whose speed and athleticism have been easy to spot on the practice field, is thrust immediately into the fire.

It would be unusual for the Patriots to be counting on a rookie at outside linebacker, and surely there would be some early growing pains. At the least, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Cunningham should find his way on the field as a sub pass-rusher.

"Jermaine has picked up things very well," Belichick said. "I think each day you can definitely see him getting better, more confident, understanding things that happened the day before and being able to process that."

Banta-Cain likes what he has seen from Cunningham, saying his youth is an asset.

"He has a lot of potential," Banta-Cain said. "He's coming along [well]. I think he still has a lot to learn, he has a long way to go. He's obviously a rookie and he's trying to get better every day. I'm sure when he puts all the pieces together, he's going to be a great player for us."

Meanwhile, five-year veteran Rob Ninkovich is looking to make a jump similar to Banta-Cain's in 2006. From 2003 to 2005, Banta-Cain had been used primarily as a special-teams player and sub rusher, only to break through with five starts in '06.
Banta-Cain sees some similarities between him and the 26-year-old Ninkovich, who has never started an NFL game.

"Rob is a fiery player, he has a great motor," Banta-Cain said. "Last year, he was able to help us out in the kicking game and in situations on defense. I went through a similar thing, where I had to pay my dues, so to speak, and play special teams and do all the little things right. I think Rob, once he gets more opportunities and more experience he's going to get that much more better. That's kind of what happened with me."

Belichick made the point that both Ninkovich (6-2, 260) and five-year veteran Pierre Woods (6-5, 255), another option at outside linebacker, are "definitely ahead of where they were last year." What that means for their production in 2010, however, remains an unknown.

Woods played 20 percent of the defensive snaps last year and seems to be best cast as an emergency option whose primary value comes on special teams. Ninkovich played 12 percent of the defensive snaps, but came on late, with 75 of his 123 snaps coming in the final four games of the season.

Former New York Jet Marques Murrell (6-2, 250), a four-year veteran from Appalachian State whose primary contributions have come on special teams, rounds out the group of five. Belichick said Murrell has "been making good strides as well."

Will it be good enough?

Perhaps wondering the answer to that question themselves, the Patriots worked out free-agent rush defensive end Adewale Ogunleye on Sunday, a sign that they are at least considering other options, probably to be ready for when Burgess makes a definitive decision on his future. If the Buffalo Bills ever released veteran defensive end Aaron Schobel, which seems unlikely, one would think the Patriots would be interested.
But for now, they are focused on their group of five.

"I think that group has worked hard," Belichick said. "I think we have good competition there."

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