Draft options for pass-rushers run deep

INDIANAPOLIS -- Every NFL draft is defined by something.

The 2007 draft was considered light on talent. In 2008, it was the year of the offensive tackle, with eight selected in the first round, including Jake Long going first overall. The 2009 and 2010 drafts were highlighted by the franchise quarterback, with Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford the top picks.

As for 2011, the defining characteristic of the draft is coming into sharper focus after three days of the NFL combine. While there is tremendous hype around Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, more than anything, this is the year of the pass-rusher.

Seemingly every personnel man who visited the media center here at the combine touted the depth of the pass-rush class, especially for teams that run a 3-4 defense. St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney, for one, said that high-quality pass-rushers can be found into the second round. Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert echoed similar thoughts.

Unless they're all wrong, this is perhaps the best news that fans of the New England Patriots could hope to hear, because those who watched the team in 2010 seem to have all come to the same conclusion: Opposing quarterbacks weren't harassed enough. More havoc is needed, especially when considering that defensive lineman Mike Wright -- who missed the final six regular-season games -- led the team with 5.5 sacks.

The key now is finding the right prospect to bring the heat, and the NFL combine should help the team take steps toward making the choice.

Could it be Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan?

He is one of the most explosive rushers in the draft, totaling 25.5 sacks, 42.5 tackles for a loss and 12 forced fumbles over the past two seasons. For teams seeking a relentless, disruptive playmaker, the high-motor Kerrigan fits the bill.

But one aspect to consider is that Kerrigan's production came while playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. He didn't drop into pass coverage; instead, his responsibility was almost always the same -- get upfield and harass the quarterback.

"Our motto at Purdue was it's not enough just to get the sack or get the tackle, but you wanted to force a fumble and get the ball back for your offense," Kerrigan said.

The Patriots run a 3-4 defense, so drafting Kerrigan in the first round would mean they either project him to outside linebacker --which comes with more risk -- or are comfortable investing such a rich asset in a player who might be limited to playing in sub packages when the Patriots employ a four-man line. Considering the Patriots were in a sub package 57 percent of the time in 2010, and ranked last in the NFL on third down, maybe that's enough for them to consider that option.

Essentially, it would come down to this: Would the Patriots be willing to use a high draft choice on a player who might be limited to doing one or two things -- starting with a ferocious pass rush -- at a very high level?

History says no, as the Patriots generally look for four-down value in the first round. Because of this, they often take themselves out of the running for top 4-3 edge rushers.
Maybe, with their bounty of other picks, it's time to alter that approach if a player like Kerrigan (6-foot-3, 267 pounds) could provide a Clay Matthews-type impact.

If not Kerrigan, perhaps it's Missouri's Aldon Smith, another explosive edge rusher.

At 6-4 and 264 pounds, Smith is one of the riskier picks in the draft, as he enters after his redshirt sophomore year and missed three games with a leg injury in 2010. But there is no denying his explosiveness; he totaled 17 sacks and 29 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons.

Like Kerrigan, Smith's role was most often to play forward, attacking the quarterback. He seldom dropped into coverage, so projecting him to outside linebacker in the Patriots' scheme makes him a riskier pick.

"I've done a lot of work with it since I got out of college," Smith said of dropping into pass coverage. "The more I do it, the more comfortable I get."

At the least, Smith could harass the quarterback in sub packages, but then again comes the question: Is that enough to warrant a first-round pick for the Patriots?

In a draft stocked with pass-rushers, it is a compelling question to ponder.

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.