OK, so where's the pass-rusher?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It all seemed to be setting up nicely for the New England Patriots. In need of a top pass-rusher in the 2011 NFL draft, they were positioned well to strike when the opportunity arose.

It came … and they passed.

This had to sting a bit for those who watched the Patriots finish 32nd in the NFL on third down last season, in part because opposing quarterbacks often seemed to have time to tour the team’s nearby Hall of Fame before finding an open target to complete a pass.

The hope was to find a play-with-your-hair-on-fire spark plug in this year’s draft. Instead, the Patriots have made five picks through the first three rounds, four of which have come on offense.

So it’s no wonder that some are asking, “What’s the deal?”

The defining time came at the top of the second round, with the Patriots sitting on the 33rd overall pick, which had been shrewdly acquired from the Carolina Panthers in a brilliant trade last year. The top two pass-rushers who fit the team’s system -- Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard and Arizona’s Brooks Reed -- were there for the taking.

If the Patriots didn’t select either of them, they’d have to wait 23 spots until the 56th overall pick. That was the risk assessment of the moment.

Perhaps thinking one of them would be there, or maybe simply not rating pass-rusher as high of a need as many of their fans, the Patriots chose cornerback Ras-I Dowling instead. It was a solid pick, laying the groundwork for an exciting future combination of Devin McCourty and Dowling on the outer edges of the field.

At the same time, it left the Patriots exposed if they truly wanted their pass-rusher. Sure enough, other teams quickly swooped in.

Four picks later, Sheard was gone to the Cleveland Browns, and first-year head coach Pat Shurmur was talking about how “he’s got great instincts” for getting to the quarterback.

Five picks after that, Reed went to the Houston Texans and linebackers coach Reggie Herring mentioned how Reed has “the fastest feet in this draft, and your feet put you in a position to win.”

By the time the Patriots were back on the clock, there was no pass-rusher worthy of the pick, so they ended up going running back/running back/quarterback, leaving some followers puzzled about the lack of attention to the defense.

Should they have been more aggressive? It seems a fair question to ask.

Dowling shows promise as a big, physical cornerback and comes across as McCourty-like humble, which is a rare combination. If he becomes a shutdown option, it’s possible he could be just as much of an answer as Sheard and Reed might have been by helping the pass rush in reverse. But if Dowling doesn’t fill that potential, and Sheard and/or Reed do, this could be a Clay Matthews-type situation all over again.

Asked about the lack of pass-rush help late Friday, Belichick focused on the players already on the roster.

“We have some young players and I think that they will still continue to develop,” he responded. “There are good players up there on the board [but] we got the ones that we felt were the best for us.”

That’s not going to make too many Patriots followers feel better.

The team had its chance at a top pass-rusher and let it pass by, only heightening frustrations of those who see a weakness that hasn’t been addressed.