Veteran Pass Rush a Luxury, Not a Necessity for New England Patriots

Are Defensive Ends John Abraham and Dwight Freeney Fits for Foxboro?

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | It's May. By now, the biggest waves of NFL free agency have hit shore. But don't tell that to former Pro Bowl pass-rushers John Abraham and Dwight Freeney.

The two veterans have gotten attention from a number of teams, including the New England Patriots.

Abraham and Freeney paid visits to Foxboro, Mass., this March, as Mike Garafolo of USA Today first reported. Yet both left town without signing deals and are now weighing their options some two months later.

If both sign elsewhere, who could blame them? And who could blame New England, for that matter?

Adding a veteran edge-rusher would be a luxury for the Patriots, not a priority.

There are are few factors to consider when it comes to New England and the two renowned free agents: money, age and need.

One could speculate that the two defensive ends -- who earned a combined $23 million in 2012, per Football Player Salaries -- had higher asking prices than what head coach Bill Belichick and Co. had in mind.

The team has a little under $9 million in salary cap space when tallying the top 51 contracts, according to Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald. That's a tentative number, and one that will fluctuate with roster bonuses, rookie signings as well as player's trips to injured reserve. In light of this, having some extra financial room to work with is hardly a bad idea.

One could also argue that at ages 35 and 33, respectively, both Abraham and Freeney should be prepared to see a reduced role. That's easier said than done, however, as the two former first-round draft picks obviously want to play where their services are most needed. If either man were to land in New England, their utilization would most likely be as a situational pass-rusher, not an every-down bookend.

Would that jive with two guys who have been starters for the last dozen years?

Abraham started 15 of 16 regular season games for the Atlanta Falcons in 2012 and played 71 percent of the team's defensive snaps, cites FootballOutsiders.com. He recorded 35 tackles, 10 sacks and six forced fumbles. By all accounts, Abraham's production has been outstanding. The 6'4", 263-pounder has amassed 32.5 sacks over the last three seasons.

Freeney's 2012 campaign was on the other end of the spectrum. The longtime Indianapolis Colt started 14 games but was slowed due to injury, notching just 12 tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble. The 6'1", 268-pound bull-rusher was converted to outside linebacker in coach Chuck Pagano's defense and played only 66 percent of the team's defensive snaps, as indicated by FootballOutsiders.com data.

Both ends are proven. Both ends certainly have something left in the tank. But for one reason or another, both are still on the market.

This leads us to the element of need.

The Patriots defense -- a very young group -- finished last season tied for 15th in the NFL with 37 sacks. That number is not great. It's not awful. But it definitely could use improvement. That improvement could come with experience alone. After all, there's something to be said for letting your investments grow.

This April, the Patriots spent a second-round pick on Southern Mississippi hybrid linebacker Jamie Collins, who may end up rushing the passer. The team also added a viable seventh-round pick in Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan.

The efforts to construct the edge don't end there.

In 2012, New England selected Syracuse's Chandler Jones in Round 1. In Round 3, the depth chart grew more stocked with Arkansas Razorback Jake Bequette. Then via undrafted free agency, the Pats added value with Rutgers Scarlet Knight Justin Francis.

Add those names to the stockpile with Rob Ninkovich, 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham, as well as recent signings Marcus Benard and Jason Vega, and you've got a laundry list of candidates to sift through.

As much as Abraham and Freeney could be fits in New England, there is also a youth maturation process already underway inside Gillette Stadium. It's important not to stifle that.

Before long, we will see No. 55 and No. 93 back on the field, breaking through offensive backfields. And this time, they will be donning new uniforms, new contracts and new roles.

Just don't hold your breath waiting to see them in blue, silver, red and white.

Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for Bleacher Report and NEPatriotsDraft.

You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.

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