The New England Patriots have never been a team to fall in love with "pass rushers," arguably to their detriment in the years between the dynasty defense of the 2000s and the recent resurgence en route to their win in Super Bowl XLIX. Bill Belichick's scheme calls for his defensive ends and linebackers to be just as stout against the run as they are getting to the passer, with their work against the run being the more important piece of the puzzle.
However, last offseason we began to see a slight evolution to Belichick's thinking and this offseason, especially in the draft, it appears the Patriots are finally ready to hunt quarterbacks, not just wait for them to make mistakes.
A decade ago, Belichick had players like Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin, players who were almost equally balanced in all areas of the game and thus rarely left the field. When those players departed, they were never truly replaced and as the game evolved into a pass-heavy one, the Patriots' defenses of 2010-13 started getting shredded.
Perhaps most telling was how bad the Pats' third-down defense was in that time, ranking 32nd in 2010, 28th in 2011, 22nd in 2012 and 26th in 2013. This past season, even with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in their secondary, they only climbed to 16th.
Now, without Revis and Browner, the Pats must figure out how to offset the difference. Of course, no secondary can make up for a lack of a pass rush. If given enough time, any quarterback will complete passes and Patriots fans have seen plenty of supposedly bad quarterbacks put up big yardage on their defense. Names like Dan Orlovsky (353 yards passing), Vince Young (400) and Chad Henne (393) are just a few that stand out.
But a great pass rush can make any secondary look good and it appears that's the route the Patriots will try to take this season.
The headliner is a player they actually took last year, 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley. Easley's explosion off the ball in college was unprecedented and now, with a full year to get his injured knees healthy, the hope is that he'll be the instant pass-rushing presence he was at Florida.
This year's draft class has only reinforced the Pats' shifting view on the importance of having a stable of pass rushers.
First-round pick (No. 32 overall) Malcom Brown is not the rusher Easley could be, but his role in the system of eating up blocks and occasionally blowing up double-teams to push the pocket, is vital to creating up one-on-one matchups elsewhere. Even still he had 6.5 sacks and seven hurries last season at Texas, so he should cause some problems with his size alone.
That's where the other draft picks like Geneo Grissom, Tre Flowers and Xzavier Dickson come in. All three have excellent athleticism and versatility and combined for a total of 18.5 sacks and 20 QB hurries in their final years in college. Of course, it's never easy to translate production into the NFL, but on paper the Patriots' attention to pass rush seems clear.
Add those players with the likes of free-agent addition Jabaal Sheard, and in-house vets Michael Buchanan, Zack Moore and Jake Bequette, and the Pats have the most promising group of front-line talent that fans have seen in many years.
Simply put, the Patriots must get to the quarterback this season or their inexperienced and unproven secondary is going to get torched. Success in this area can be measured by more than just sack and QB hurry numbers, as the goals are consistent disruption and to collapse the pocket every time the opposition tries to throw.
It looks like New England finally has the players up front to do just that.