INDIANAPOLIS – Even the most casual of Patriots fans probably knows what spot most consider to be the team's greatest need heading into the 2007 NFL Draft – linebacker.
New England hasn't dedicated much attention to the spot through the draft under Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, selecting just five linebackers in the duo's time in New England and none higher than the fifth round. Not since the previous management regime has the team selected a linebacker on the first day of the draft -- 1999 first-round pick Andy Katzenmoyer. And not since the back-to-back drafts of 1995 and 1996 of the Bill Parcells era in New England, when the team selected second rounder Ted Johnson and third rounder Tedy Bruschi respectively, have the Patriots been able to draft a linebacker that had a lasting impact on the team's defense.
That likely has to change in 2007. Returning starters Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin will all be in their 30s by the start of next season. Part-time 2006 starters Junior Seau and Tully Banta-Cain are both free agents and beyond that the depth chart is littered with unproven types in Eric Alexander, Pierre Woods and Corey Mays. So there is little argument that the Patriots need to add some talented depth and youth to both the inside and outside linebacker spots this spring.
And with Seau's future uncertain and not many other candidates lined up to start inside next to Bruschi -- who himself pondered retirement this winter – it's clear a young, stout, athletic, playmaking inside linebacker might be just what the team doctor ordered on draft weekend.
But as is always the case for teams utilizing the 3-4 defense, finding linebackers isn't an easy chore. Many of the top inside linebackers at the 2007 NFL Combine come from Tampa-2, speed-based college defensive schemes that make them more likely candidates for NFL jobs in Indy, Tampa or Detroit than for life in the two-gap, 3-4 front of the Patriots.
The consensus top inside linebacker in April's draft, and a guy who might very well be a good fit in New England, is Ole Miss playmaker and 2006 Butkus Award winner Patrick Willis (6-1, 240). That's if he lasts long enough on draft weekend to land in New England.
"Patrick Willis has impressed me," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think he's one of the ascending guys in this draft right now. I thought he had a great Senior Bowl. I think he's going to run faster this week than people expect. So I think he's a guy that you are going to see…a lot of people think he's a late first-round pick, I actually think he's going to move up into the middle of the first round before this is all said and done."
Willis, and the rest of his linebacker teammates at the Senior Bowl, also impressed 49ers head coach Mike Nolan who coached the South squad in Mobile. Willis was the South's Defensive Player of the Game in a losing effort with a game-high 11 tackles.
"That was one of the stronger units on our team, I thought," Nolan said of the South linebackers. "Early on, you could see by their work ethic. Patrick Willis, I think, is going to be a very good pro. I thought a lot about him during the week. He played very well all week in practice. In the game – we didn't play very well on our side – but he was one of the players in the game that did play well. He did a very good job, made a lot of plays, was all over the field. He catches your eye, not only in practice but in the game."
While Willis has no experience in a 3-4 and actually comes from a Tampa 2 type scheme in college, he has the size, the tools and the desire to play in any defense at the next level.
"I would like to say is that I'm an all-around linebacker," Willis said Saturday at the Combine. "I can play middle, I can play outside, wherever they need me to play in a 3-4, I'm just ready to get started."
If Willis is not the Patriots man, or if his stock pushes him too high up the board for New England, an intriguing option could be Miami's Jon Beason (6-0, 232). While many project the Hurricane defender as a 4-3 outside linebacker, he says some teams have already talked to him about playing inside in the 3-4. It's a change that would be new to him but not impossible.
"I think it would be a challenge, because at UM we run a 4-3," Beason said. "I talked to some scouts and coaches and they see me as a Mike, an inside backer in a 3-4. I don't think it would be that different. It's still a two-gap responsibility, so it's a lot like what I do at Will."
And though he was talking in generalities about what kind of coach he'd like to play for in the NFL, it sounded like Beason would fit in well on Belichick's defense.
"I like the technician, the guy who knows it and is good at getting it across to his players," Beason said. "I also like the stern coach, the disciplinarian, because I know that's what wins football games. I like the guys in your face, military-style coaching. That's what I'm used to."
The only other top-rated inside linebackers with a strong chance of being able to fit inside in the 3-4 look to be Florida's Brandon Siler (6-2, 241) or Michigan's David Harris (6-2, 243). Siler is a junior entry who lacks experience in the 3-4, but believes he could play any spot in the scheme.
"The inside is what I'm use to doing," Siler said. "I've taken on a lot of big guys on the inside and made plays on the inside. So, yeah, I think I'll suit in it just fine."
With the Belichick's recent connections to Gators coach Urban Meyer and Siler's positive attitude, his landing in New England can't be ruled out.
"I think I'm a leader," Siler responded when asked what he brings to the NFL. "I think I'm a high-tempo guy. I always bring energy, always around the ball. I think I bring that to any NFL team that I go to. I'm going to bring that energy. I'm going to demand that the people around me have that same kind of energy. I think in drafting me, a pro team will be drafting one of their future leaders."
The hard-hitting but soft-spoken Harris does have experience playing in the 3-4 from his sophomore year with the Wolverines. While he might not blow people away with his measurables, including a 4.75 40 heading into the Combine, Harris gets the job done on the field as evidenced by his 73 solo tackles last season in the middle of the Michigan defense. Harris said the Combine takes him out of his natural environment of the football field and hopes his work in pads speaks loud enough even if his testing numbers don't.
"You have to go out and react and have instincts," Harris said. "Football isn't all about speed. It's all about reaction time and how well you can read plays and I think I can do that pretty well."
And he'd certainly rather be doing that than sitting at a table at the Combine discussing his future with a group of writers.
"I'd rather just be on the field knocking somebody out," Harris said with a smile.
Two other top inside linebacker Combine invitees, Pittsburgh's H.B. Blades (5-10, 236) and Florida State's Buster Davis (5-9, 238) lack the ideal size for a 3-4, inside linebacker. Both players admit to being more suited to the Tampa 2 scheme but don't believe questions about their height should overshadow productive college careers.
"I've been this height for a long time," Davis said. "That's just something I had to get used to when I was a little boy. I think the only time I was the tallest person in my class was in third grade. After that, everybody caught me. Height is just who I am. It separates me from everybody else. I'm not your typical 6-2 or 6-3 guy. At the height I am, I get the job done just as good or better than they do."
While NFLDraftScout.com projects 16 or fewer inside linebackers to get selected on draft weekend a pair of later-round possiblities that Patriots fans should keep an eye on are California's Desmond Bishop (6-1, 239) and Clemson's Anthony Waters (6-3, 242).
The Patriots have already shown interest in Bishop and while he doesn't have much experience in the 3-4 he'd love to get the chance to play the scheme in New England.
"They talked a little bit about the 3-4, asking if I could play in the 3-4, which I think I could do," Bishop said. "But mostly just talking, getting a feel for each other, getting to know each other a little bit. And we'll let the Combine stuff take care of itself. I think I'm versatile. Some people say they don't think I can drop back in coverage, that I'm just a run stopper. But I think I could drop back in coverage, I can run-stop, I could play in the 3-4. I could do whatever linebackers do.
"I think I would fit well with the Patriots. Their style of play, their togetherness, that's how I play."
Waters is a bit of draft wildcard after missing all but one game of his senior season to a torn ACL. He has the size and stoutness to play inside, although his value may be limited as some believe he's mostly a two-down player in the NFL. He won't run at the Combine but expects to be ready to go on his Pro Day on April 3, hoping to match his best pre-injury 40 time of 4.45. Such a performance would certainly boost his draft value significantly, even given the injury concern.
"At Clemson I played in two different kinds of defense. I know the variations of both schemes, the 3-4 and the 4-3 - so I feel pretty comfortable in any one of those schemes," Waters said. "The way I see it is, things are going to work out the way they're supposed to work out. All I can do is continue to work hard. Hard work usually pays off for itself."
Similarly the Patriots will continued to work hard in pre-draft preparations that could very well include a search for the team's linebackers of the future. But even thought Bruschi isn't getting any younger and Vrabel is always better suited to playing time on the outside, the Patriots need for a potential impact player at inside linebacker on draft weekend might not be all that easy to fill. With Willis moving up the charts and not many other sure-fire 3-4 prospects, penciling in a rookie starter alongside Bruschi at inside linebacker next season might be even less likely than it would normally seem.