(Student assistant Mike Rodak begins an early position-by-position look at free agency with the Patriots. Because free-agency rules are unclear based on the uncertain collective bargaining agreement, the 2010 rules were used to compile the information. Teams may also restrict some of these players with the franchise tag.)
POSITION: Outside linebacker
RATING THE NEED: High
CURRENT PERSONNEL: Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, Tully Banta-Cain, Eric Moore, Marques Murrell
KEY CONSIDERATION: Banta-Cain is coming off a five-sack season and was replaced as a starter by Cunningham early in the season. With Banta-Cain due to have a cap figure of about $4.5 million in 2011, the team could consider cutting ties. The Patriots will likely look elsewhere for the pass-rushing presence that has eluded them.
NOTABLE TARGETS ON THE MARKET: OLB LaMarr Woodley (Steelers), OLB Tamba Hali (Chiefs), DE Jason Babin (Titans), DE Ray Edwards (Vikings), OLB Kamerion Wimbley (Raiders), DE Cliff Avril (Lions; restricted), DE Mathias Kiwanuka (Giants), OLB Manny Lawson (49ers), DE Charles Johnson (Panthers), OLB Matt Roth (Browns), OLB Mike Vrabel (Chiefs)
MOST LIKELY TARGETS FOR PATS: Woodley, Hali
SLEEPER POSSIBILITY FOR PATS: Kiwanuka
OUTLANDISH THOUGHT FOR PATS: Woodley
WRAP IT UP: This is the one area where the Patriots could look to spend big money on the free agent market. Adding a piece like Woodley would shore up a position which has been under-stocked in recent years, and add a steady pass rusher to a defense sorely in need of one. Woodley, however, is a top franchise tag target for the Steelers.