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Patriots look to familiar formula in attempt to give pass rush a boost

03.15.13 at 10:35 am ET
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John Abraham will also reportedly be coming to Foxboro. (AP)

John Abraham has an impressive resume as a pass-rusher. (AP)

In the summer of 2011, the Patriots were able to strike gold when they acquired veteran free agent Andre Carter to shore up an occasionally inconsistent pass rush. Despite posting 66 sacks over the first 10 seasons of his NFL career with the 49ers and Redskins, the 32-year-old Carter, was not seen as an exceptionally high-profile addition when he inked his contract that August with the Patriots. And he was a bit of a slow starter — he played just over half the snaps over New England’s first four games that season.

However, Carter quickly became an absolutely integral part of the Patriots defense. Over the course of the season (until he suffered a season-ending injury in a December win over the Broncos), Carter, who was used mostly as a situational pass-rusher, finished with a team-high 22 quarterback pressures and 10 sacks in 14 games, including four in a memorable win over the Jets. (He also had 24 quarterback hurries.) At the end of the year, he was rewarded with a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts — the first of his career.

He didn’t return for the 2012 season — he moved on to the Raiders — but it certainly appears that the Patriots could be trying to replicate the same formula for success they were able to hit on with Carter, as they have Friday visits scheduled with veteran defensive ends John Abraham and Dwight Freeney.

The 34-year-old Abraham, who recently was cut loose by the Falcons after seven seasons in Atlanta because of salary cap issues and Atlanta’s desire to get a little younger at the position, has spent a total of 13 seasons in the league, and has a similar resume to Carter: The 6-foot-4, 263-pounder has at least 9.5 sacks in each of his last three seasons, and has 122 sacks over the course of his career.

In 2012, Abraham was utilized primarily as a situational pass rusher by the Falcons — he never played a full game, but did end the season with 690 defensive snaps (according to Pro Football Focus) and PFF had him finishing the season with 39 quarterback hurries and eight quarterback hits. They also had him graded out as a +28.0 for the season when it came to getting after the quarterback.

Freeney is also an interesting case. Described by former Patriots left tackle Matt Light as the toughest pass rusher he’s ever faced, the Connecticut native is an 11-year veteran who was taken in the first round by the Colts out of Syracuse in 2002. Over the course of his impressive career — much of it spent chasing around after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — he’s racked up 107.5 sacks, including 13.5 over the last two seasons with Indy.

In 2012, like Abraham, he was used primarily as a situational pass rusher for the Colts — while he did play more snaps over the course of the 2012 season than Abraham did (768 to 690), his final numbers were comparable to Abraham. The former Syracuse star ended up with five sacks, as well as nine quarterback hits and 34 quarterback hurries. PFF had him graded at +1.7 on the year.

(One interesting wrinkle regarding Freeney and his positional versatility — he transitioned last season with the Colts, who went from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 under a new coaching staff. As a result, Freeney technically ended up moving from a right defensive end spot in a four-man front to a right outside linebacker position in Indy’s new 3-4. Not a huge change, but just food for thought in the context of this conversation.)

If one or both did end up in New England, it would be to add depth at the defensive end spots. The Patriots figure to lean heavily on both Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at both end positions, as was the case last season. (In addition, youngsters Justin Francis and Jake Bequette will likely figure into the mix as well.) Last year, however, depth was a concern at the position, as a late-season injury — and a possible collision with the rookie wall — caused Jones’ numbers to dip slightly late in the year, while a four-game ban for Jermaine Cunningham for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancers also affected New England’s depth at end.

Neither Abraham or Freeney would be around for long — in fact, it would be shocking if they were signed for anything longer than two years and very short money. (For comparisons, sake, Carter made a base salary of $2.75 million for his one season in New England.) But the idea of Freeney tutoring Jones (one Syracuse product working with another) is intriguing, while few veteran defensive ends can boast the pass-rushing resume of Abraham.

The Patriots have been down this road before — last season they were hoping to resuscitate Trevor Scott‘s career, and while Scott provided depth and special teams value, he didn’t ultimately have the sort of impact New England was hoping for. It’s also important to remember that it’s still (relatively) early in the free agent process, and several other teams are likely to be in the mix for both Abraham and Freeney before it’s all said and done.

But it’s clear that New England has a template in place when it comes to going after veteran pass-rushers, and if the Patriots’ experience with Abraham and/or Freeney works out half as well as it did with Carter, the Patriots should be happy.

Read More: Andre Carter, dwight freeney, John Abraham,
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