Ever since the 2001 season, the Patriots have boasted a deep, talented, and intelligent linebacking corps. The personnel manning the linebacker position has remained largely unchanged since '01 with the exception of replacing Willie McGinest with Adalius Thomas, and the acquisition of Junior Seau.
However, the age in New England's linebacking corps was exposed for the entire NFL to see during last season's stretch run. Starting with the Ravens game, the Patriots linebackers looked alternatingly sluggish and worn out, save for some flashes of brilliance in the Jacksonville game, and Junior Seau's great tackle of Michael Turner near the goal line against the Chargers.
Tedy Bruschi has gotten to the point where his status with the team is decided on a year to year basis and Seau is seriously contemplating retirement, so the acquisition of some fresh legs in the middle was necessary in the draft. That said, here's what the Patriots will look like next year at linebacker.
The Middle:As I mentioned before, the Patriots' age in the middle of the linebacking corps was and still is (to a degree) a major concern heading into next season.
Despite a typically productive campaign from Tedy Bruschi (92 tackles, 64 solo), he will be 35 when next season starts and his future with the team beyond next year is doubtful at best.
Needless to say, Bruschi's best years are behind him and no amount of heart can make up for a body incapable of performing in the NFL on a weekly basis. Bruschi will be a fine starter for next year but his days are obviously numbered.
Last year's other starter at middle linebacker, Junior Seau, will be 40 by the playoffs next year and he may not even be back this year, despite the fact that he has shown that he still has something left in the tank for one more run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Seau had a decent year last year, racking up 73 tackles and 3 picks, but he, like Bruschi, seemed to be playing with house money at times last year and his lack of speed and athleticism could be problematic at times next year (should he come back.)
Then again, I don't see Seau hanging up his cleats just yet (remember his speech last year? "I'm not retiring... I'm graduating!" He signed with the Pats three days later.)
Since Seau's return is questionable and Bruschi is declining (to say the least), a lot of pressure will be placed on #10 overall selection Jerod Mayo to control the middle next year.
The Outside:Last year's starters, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas, will be 33 and 31 respectively next year and only time will tell how long they will last. However, unlike Bruschi and Seau, neither Vrabel nor Thomas have shown obvious signs of declining, so the outside of New England's linebacking corps won't be as much of a liability as the inside could be.
Last season, Mike Vrabel earned a well deserved pro bowl berth last season with an impressive 12.5 sack, 77 tackle season. Vrabel seemed to dominate at times last season, posting 8.5 of his sacks in 3 games against the Dolphins, the Redskins, and the Jets. During the game against Washington, Vrabel posted 13 tackles and forced three fumbles to go along with his three sacks.
Vrabel may not be in his physical prime, but he has shown no signs of slowing down and he may have at least 2-4 good years left in him.
Thomas posted more pedestrian numbers then his counterpart during a season in which he made 79 tackles and recorded six and a half sacks. However, stats don't tell the whole story in this case.
For the first half of last year, Thomas played out of position at middle linebacker and got only half of a sack. When he was moved back outside to play his natural position, Thomas' production increased noticeably, he had six sacks from week 11 to week 17. With more depth in the middle, thanks to the draft, Thomas should return to form next season.
The Draft Class: Counting UDFAs, the Patriots added 5 linebackers in the draft to replenish their aging unit. So here's my take on each new addition, along with a quick scouting report and where each player would fit in the Patriots' system.
Jerod Mayo:Not only was Mayo incredibly productive last year at Tennessee (140 tackles), he also had a magnificent combine during which he ran a fantastic 4.54 40 yard dash and completed 24 bench press reps at 225 pounds. He also scored a decent 26 on the wonderlic test, 10 better then Keith Rivers.
Most importantly however, Mayo is a very hard worker with top-notch intangibles.He is known to spend a lot of time in the film room watching tape of opponents. Mayo is a very smart player who excels at reading defenses, which makes him a great fit at middle linebacker in New England's complex system.
Mayo also brings elite athleticism and the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline, a trait that could greatly benefit New England's old linebacking corps.
Shawn Crable:The way i see it, the Pats took a bit of a gamble here. However, Crable's fantastic athleticism and pass-rush abilities more then justify risking a third round pick on him.
Crable is very tall and long for his position at 6-foot-five, 245lbs. He recorded a whopping 28 TFL last year and is a great playmaker behind the line.
However, he is suspect at reading defense and his work ethic is very questionable. He may be a project at this point who needs to be pushed to live up to his mammoth potential.
Crable's physical gifts make him a fantastic fit as a rush linebacker in a 3-4, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can play in New England's complex system. A good combine (4.64 40 and 29 bench press reps) showcased his unique physical tools well, and may have had a role in his selection in the third round.
This pick has a lot of boom or bust potential to it but it was a risk well worth taking in my eyes.
Bo Ruud: Ruud is a typical Belichick pick in that he is extremely hard working, tough, and gritty. He is also quite intelligent and adept in coverage. He's pretty slow and his footwork is mediocre but he makes up for it in hard work.
Ruud will probably be a special teams player early on who may see some time at middle linebacker if he brushes up on his footwork and instincts.
Ruud was a small reach considering the fact that Ali Highsmith and Erin Henderson were available, but he was not a bad pick by any stretch. He is a great fit for the Patriots in particular though due to his abilities in coverage and his football smarts.
Vince Redd: This guy has fantastic size at 6-foot-6 260 pounds, and he has the talent to be at least a decent pass rusher in a 3-4 set, or a defensive end in a 4-3. Redd saw little playing time during his college career but he is very athletic for his size and is a good fundamental tackler. He is also quite versatile, which makes him all the more appealing to the Pats as a prospect.
The only real knocks on Redd were the level of competition he played against at Liberty and his mediocre instincts in coverage (he was a defensive end for a good portion of his career).
The Patriots could have gotten a real bargain here in Redd, whose superb athleticism could help him make an impact as a situational rusher and perhaps even a special teamer.
Gary Guyton: I really, really like Gary Guyton due to his blazing speed (4.47 40 yard dash and great in-game speed) and top flight athleticism. Guyton played at for a good program at Georgia Tech and got some pretty nice numbers (78 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13.5 TFL).
Guyton, like Redd, has a very high ceiling and could be a fantastic player in the right system. Guyton is also a big hitter who can really lay the lumber when he's given the chance.
Guyton is very consistent and well-rounded, he plays equally well against the pass and against the run. He may not be an every down playmaker, but he's got the tenacity and talent to be an every down starter in the NFL. He can play on the strong side and the weak side and is capable of making the transition to a 3-4 scheme.
Overall: Well, that's all for today. all in all, this coming year may be one of transition in New England's linebacking corps. Older veterans like Bruschi and Seau are nearing the end of their careers while promising rookies like Mayo and Crable are just coming into the league to make their mark.