Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis and Jonathan Vilma are the first names you think of when you ponder elite middle linebackers.
But as of 2010 and entering the 2011 season, a new name must join that group: Jerod Mayo.
For the three-year player out of Tennessee, 2010 was a breakout year. Mayo recorded a league-high 175 tackles—15 more than Stephen Tulloch, who tallied the next-most tackles.
Within Bill Belichick's 3-4 defensive scheme, Mayo has developed into the ideal 3-4 inside linebacker. In the 3-4, it's expected that the linebackers, inside and outside, are to be the playmakers. The down defensive linemen are supposed to take up blocks, which allow the linebackers to roam free and accumulated as many tackles as possible.
And that is exactly what Mayo did in 2010.
The New England Patriots are one of, if not the youngest defense in the NFL. Over the past couple of seasons, the Patriots have cut ties with household names that were leaders on the defense. Whether it's Richard Seymor, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi, it has left New England's defense without an identity.
However, last season was extremely promising for the young and inexperienced group. Veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork stepped up into a leadership role and so did Mayo.
Mayo was more involved with the audibles and controlled the defense last season more than ever. In fact, Mayo looked much like Bruschi and Vrabel did back in the days of the dynasty.
It's clear that Mayo is stepping up into a new role, and along with it, Mayo's production will increase.
Mayo is only 25 years old and will be entering the prime of his career, but the unique thing is that he is still showing signs of more potential.
Mayo led the league in tackles last season—expect him to tally even more tackles next season while he emerges into an NFL superstar.
He's only going to get better, and it's clear that Belichick found a gem with the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
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