The endings to the 2006 and 2007 seasons were eerily similar and painful for the New England Patriots. For two consecutive years, they watched a late lead evaporate as their Manning-led opponents put together fourth-quarter drives that carved the Patriots' defense for game-clinching touchdowns.
Whether it was Joseph Addai running it in or Plaxico Burress catching it, the Pats could not get a stop when they needed it most.
The Patriots' defense, once the foundation on which the Dynasty of the Millennium was built, had gotten too old and too slow to keep up with opposing offenses.
Teams with athletic tight ends and dynamic slot receivers picked on the Patriots' linebacking crew, forcing former Pro Bowler Tedy Bruschi and the ageless but still aging Junior Seau into pass coverage at any chance they got.
While Bill Belichick admitted the Patriots had been trying to get younger and faster on defense for years, it just hadn’t happened yet. Whether it was free-agent bust Monty Beisel or any of the linebacker draftees that couldn’t stick with the team, there was a stagnation of new talent at Belichick’s favorite defensive position.
However, in 2008, it looks like that has changed.
Reports emerged just before the draft that inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was being targeted by the Pats and, after a trade down from seven to 10, New England nabbed the former Tennessee Volunteer.
Through four games, Mayo has looked like everything the Patriots could’ve hoped for, leading the team with 23 solo tackles and rarely leaving the field.
But Mayo hasn’t been the only rookie to step in and contribute some youthful legs to the linebacking crew that has been knocked around the league as having their best days behind them.
Gary Guyton was not selected on draft day in 2008, despite being the fastest linebacker at the scouting combine.
Guyton’s measurables at the combine were off the chart. Along with having the best 40-yard dash time (4.47), he also had the top numbers in vertical jump (36.5) and broad jump (10’ 6”). While an athletic addition at linebacker was just what the Patriots needed, he also fit the "student of the game" mold that the Patriots seem to require of any personnel acquisition.
Like all undrafted rookie free agents, Guyton was a long shot to make the team, even though the Patriots had made him a high priority after he went unclaimed in the draft. When it came down to choosing between New England or San Francisco, Guyton jumped at the chance to play for Bill Belichick.
“I had quite a few [choices]. The decision came down to looking at my options and saying ‘OK, this is New England. This option and this chance doesn’t come too many times.’ At the end of the day, that was the bottom line for me.” Guyton told Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe, shortly after signing with the team.
Guyton ended up being one of the few bright spots in a winless preseason for the Pats. He showed flashes of his top-end speed and, in a game that would decide his fate, led the team with 10 tackles and was all over the field in the finale against the Giants.
With relentless hard work, Guyton was able to not only beat out a more experienced veteran like Victor Hobson, but he earn a spot on the game-day roster when most fans and team pundits thought he was destined for practice-squad duty.
While Guyton may not have the strength to play ILB in the base 3-4 just yet, he is already contributing in passing situations, a spot where the Pats desperately needed an infusion of speed.
Just this past weekend, Guyton was even part of a dime “speed” package that included one down lineman, four linebackers, and six defensive backs. First rounder Mayo was on the sidelines.
Guyton has also been a stellar addition to a special teams unit that has been a consistent strength for the Patriots through four games. His speed and youth have added new wrinkles to the New England defense that badly needed both.
Guyton proves that the Patriots value one thing: performance on the field. It’s not about where you were drafted or what you’ve done in the past. If you can play the game, Bill Belichick will find a way to use you.
With the additions of Mayo and Guyton, you can’t say all the New England linebackers are old and slow anymore.
**10/8 note - Guyton played 26 of 50 defensive snaps against the 49ers.**
Mike Dussault is the Patriots Community Leader at Bleacher Report, and also a contributor at BostonSportz.com. His Patriots blog can be viewed here and he can be contacted at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.