The New England Patriots must find a way to increase their pass rush in 2014.
The Patriots forced defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to play nearly every snap in 2013. The Patriots’ No. 1 priority this offseason should be to find a third pass rusher to take some pressure off Ninkovich and Jones.
The Patriots ideally would find that player in free agency. But if they have to spend their available funds on free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Julian Edelman, the Patriots might have to fill the rest of their needs in the draft.
The Patriots’ biggest draft needs are at tight end and defensive tackle, but if the right pass rusher falls to No. 29 — or within trade-up distance — New England might have to pull the trigger and take one of this year’s talented edge defenders. If the Patriots decide to draft a pass rusher early, that likely bumps Chandler Jones to defensive tackle on third down. Jones had success as an interior rusher in 2013.
Let’s take a look at the top five pass rushers in the 2014 NFL draft.
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
There’s almost no chance that Jadeveon Clowney drops to the Patriots’ pick at No. 29, but the same probably was said about Da’Quan Bowers in the 2011 NFL draft. Crazy stuff happens in the pre-draft process, and we’re breaking down the top five pass rushers of 2014.
Clowney went into the 2013 college season as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Then he had a disappointing junior season, and now he’s not such a sure thing to go No. 1 overall. Clowney certainly has the potential to be the best player in this year’s draft, but there are questions about his motor and conditioning. Clowney had just three sacks in 2013 after recording 13 sacks in his sophomore year.
Khalil Mack, Buffalo
Khalil Mack has the potential to be the next Von Miller. Like the Denver Broncos linebacker, Mack can drop back into coverage from linebacker and rush the quarterback from the edge. In a three-man front, Mack projects as an outside linebacker. In a four-man front, Mack could play either defensive end or strong-side linebacker.
Mack is 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, but he seemed to have no problem overpowering offensive tackles at the college level. Mack had 10.5 sacks as a senior at Buffalo.
Anthony Barr, UCLA
Anthony Barr, like Mack, was a legit standup outside linebacker in college, which will draw comparisons to Miller. Barr started his career at UCLA as an offensive player, lining up at running back, tight end and wide receiver. He had no problem adjusting to the defensive side of the ball, racking up 23.5 sacks in his final two years with the Bruins.
Barr is still raw, but sometimes that’s an overblown weakness. Barr is extremely athletic and could be one of the stars of next week’s combine.
Kony Ealy, Missouri
Kony Ealy is no longer the most famous defensive end coming out of Missouri. Ealy’s teammate, Michael Sam, takes that crown after coming out as the first openly gay NFL draft prospect. Ealy almost certainly will be drafted before Sam, however.
Ealy has been compared to Jones. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, Ealy can play inside on third downs like the Patriots defensive end. Ealy had 12.5 sacks in his junior season at Missouri.
Dee Ford, Auburn
Dee Ford is a bit undersized to be expected to play every down as an NFL defensive end. But if he’s only asked to rush the passer, he’ll be fine and should make an immediate impact.
Ford had 10.5 sacks in his junior year at Auburn, including two in the national championship game against Florida State.