Only six teams recorded more sacks during the regular season than the New England Patriots. Yet, as the offseason gets underway, there isn’t a more glaring weakness Bill Belichick needs to address than the pass rush.
Though Matt Patricia was able to coax some decent play out of unheralded contributors James Harrison, Eric Lee and Ricky Jean-Francois, the Patriots’ overall lack of pass-rush talent reared its ugly head in Super Bowl LII against Philadelphia. While the Eagles recorded nine quarterback hits and a critical strip-sack, the Patriots managed to hit Nick Foles just five times.
As the draft process unfolds, the Patriots will certainly do their due diligence on the top pass-rushing prospects available in April. While there are some high-profile free-agent pass rushers such as DeMarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, the Patriots will likely eschew the top end of the market after investing $65 million in Stephon Gilmore last offseason.
However, there are a few potentially affordable free-agent fixes who could improve New England’s underwhelming pass rush. Let’s take a look at three edge-rushing options who could be in play for the Patriots.
Aaron Lynch, San Francisco 49ers
In the case of Lynch, it’s all about potential. The soon-to-be 25-year-old possesses all the physical tools to be a dominant player in the NFL, yet he enters free agency barely registering a blip on the radar.
It’s crazy to think that it’s been nearly a decade since Lynch became an instant hit as a freshman at Notre Dame, but like his NFL career, Lynch’s time in college did not live up to expectations. He transferred to South Florida and played just one year for the Bulls. After racking up 29 tackles (12 for loss) and 5.5 sacks, he declared for the 2014 NFL Draft, ultimately getting selected in the fifth round by the San Francisco 49ers.
A unique athlete who has undergone some body transformations dating back to his days at Notre Dame, Lynch is an imposing presence at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds. He ran a 4.69 back at his pro day—though he posted that time at a weight of 249 pounds. That athleticism translated to some early success in San Francisco, where Lynch totaled 12.5 sacks in his first two seasons.
However, that total has dropped to just 2.5 in just 14 games played during the last two years. Lynch’s youth and natural physical skills make him a worthwhile low-risk, high-reward signing for a team looking to bolster its pass rush. Belichick has worked wonders with underachieving players in need of motivation, and the former 49er outside linebacker could be his next pet project.
Jeremiah Attaochu, Los Angeles Chargers
Speaking of talented pass rushers with little production, Attaochu fits the bill perfectly. The 50th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft entered the league with a ton of promise. Yet, he enters free agency as a relative unknown.
The 6-foot-3, 252-pounder made a name for himself at Georgia Tech by piling up a school-record 31.5 sacks. He followed up by dominating at his pro day, recording a 4.58 40-yard dash to go along with a 37.5-inch vertical jump. On paper, the Nigerian native looked like the next great edge rusher.
Four years later, Attaochu hits free agency with 10 career sacks to his name, including none in 2017. The oft-injured outside linebacker played just four games last year and only eight in 2016.
Despite his injuries, Attaochu could be an excellent value on a one-year, prove-it deal with the Patriots. Don’t forget that he was stuck behind Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, so perhaps he’ll get a better chance to prove himself on a new team. Again, it’s hard to argue with taking a flier on a 25-year-old former second-round pick with rare physical skills.
Trent Murphy, Washington Redskins
In terms of production and value, the Patriots may not find a better option in free agency than Murphy. Before missing the 2017 season with a torn ACL, the former Stanford star was coming off a breakout 2016 campaign in which he recorded a career-high nine sacks. Ultimately, though his injury will likely cost him a shot at a big-money deal, that could make him the perfect value signing for the Patriots.
Checking in at 6-foot-6, 259 pounds, Murphy possesses the length and build of the typical Patriot edge defender. He has shuffled between outside linebacker and defensive end, which should only make him a more intriguing fit for a defense that truly transforms on a week-to-week basis.
Ironically, Murphy was selected just three picks before Attaochu after putting together a terrific All-America career for the Cardinal. Like his fellow 2014 draft alum, Murphy tested out as a good athlete, putting together a very impressive 6.78 three-cone time along with a 35.5-inch vertical jump and a 1.65 10-yard split on his 4.72 40-yard dash.
Of course, the former Redskin starter is coming off a significant knee injury and nobody can predict if that will result in a drop-off in performance. But for a franchise that shows no hesitancy in taking a shot on an undervalued asset, Murphy would be a logical free-agent fix to the Patriots’ pass rush problem.