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Ask PFW: Still talking LBs

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Patriots linebacker Tyrone McKenzie

It seems like the injury bug has struck the Pats once again. With Tyrone McKenzie [reportedly] out for the year, how do you see the inside linebacker position being filled? Do you think Antonio Appleby has the talent to step up and share the position with Tedy Bruschi and Gary Guyton? In your mind, is there a large talent gap between what McKenzie could have provided versus Appleby?John Q.

With the McKenzie injury what will happen? He has yet to be signed. Does the team have to sign him and have him count against the cap, or is there other options?
Antonio Neves

I don't believe McKenzie had signed his formal NFL contract. What compensation, if any, do players receive in this situation?Rick Soden

Yes, according to reports, McKenzie suffered a serious knee injury in rookie mini-camp earlier this month (no official word yet from the team on his status). The Pats are now in a bit of a bind without him. He was thought to be a legitimate candidate to contribute right away, especially considering the lengths Bill Belichick went to praise him on draft day for his experience, smarts and maturity.

If McKenzie is indeed out for the year, he'll receive some monetary security thanks to the injury protection agreement, which applies to rookie draft picks like him. Essentially, the agreement allows for a player to receive a good-faith contract if he suffers a career- or season-ending injury in mini-camp. The sum of such a deal is equivalent to that given to the player selected at the same spot in the previous year's draft. So, McKenzie should still receive a paycheck this year while he rehabs. And yes, that number would count against the team's salary cap.

As for who will step up now, I think Appleby is a guy to watch. He comes here with the advantage of having experience in the Pats system, having played under Al Groh at Virginia (one of Belichick's many "pipeline" coaches). Belichick has a history of choosing at least one rookie free agent a year to make his final roster, as Guyton did a year ago. I'm curious to see if Guyton can continue to improve and challenge for a starting job alongside Jerod Mayo. Eric Alexander and Bruschi are in the mix, too, but the latter isn't the same player he once was, and the former has yet to prove he deserves a starting job.

I don't see too many options out there on the veteran free agent market, so what the Pats currently have seems to be what they'll have to work with come training camp.
Erik Scalavino

Why didn't the Patriots draft more linebackers? I thought that was the biggest need after they signed cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs.Zach Forgrave

A lot of us were surprised, too. Nearly every mock draft, including PFW's, had the Pats taking an outside 'backer with their first pick. There were some good ones still available at that point (i.e., Everette Brown of Florida State), but as you know, New England traded down and eventually out of the first round altogether. In his post-draft press conference, head coach Bill Belichick more or less said he preferred taller outside linebackers than those that were available. So, that's one possible explanation. The other is that the Pats are still hoping to acquire either Julius Peppers or Jason Taylor to fill the vacancy left by the traded Mike Vrabel. My guess is it's a combination of both factors.
Erik Scalavino

Where do you see Antwain Spann playing in the secondary this season?Chris Williams

Assuming he makes the team again, which is far from a certainty, I see Spann playing a similar role to what he's performed in the past here in New England: that of a backup safety, emergency corner, and reliable special teams contributor. Even if veteran Rodney Harrison doesn't return to the Patriots, rookie Patrick Chung will likely consume a considerable amount of playing time Spann would have gotten. And if Harrison does come back, well, that further decreases the odds that Spann will be on the field much this season, barring a rash of injuries to the defensive backfield (which has happened all too often here in New England in recent years).
Erik Scalavino

Other than the rehabbing Tom Brady (hopefully he will be on the field soon), what players are nursing injuries this offseason?*Paris Reed *

Well, at the end of last season, several players were on the injured reserve list, including notable names such as Adalius Thomas, Laurence Maroney and Terrence Wheatley. Meanwhile, Ty Warren had offseason surgery to repair groin and sports hernia injuries.
Erik Scalavino

Is Kevin O'Connell really ready to be a number-two quarterback in this league? I thought he was picked up last year to be a 2- or 3-year project. Are we going to look for a more experienced quarterback?
Mark Zuber

The simple answers to your questions are yes and, most likely, no. To be more specific, let me first address your premise that O'Connell was drafted as a "project." Certainly, no one expected him to come in and supplant Brady as the starter, so, yes, it's safe to say he would be given time to develop. However, when Brady went down last season, O'Connell was thrust into the backup spot earlier than anticipated. While he wasn't called upon to replace Matt Cassel for any significant snaps, O'Connell kept the number-two job all season long, which tells me the coaching staff was satisfied with his ability. That leads me to believe he's good enough at the moment to keep his backup job.

If the Pats really wanted a more experienced veteran quarterback, they could have gotten one already. I'm sure they considered it, but it seems they didn't find anyone who they felt fit their system. At this point, I don't think there's much to choose from as far as veteran QBs on the free agent market. So, I'd say O'Connell goes into camp as the incumbent backup to Brady. And I'm fine with that.
Erik Scalavino

Am I crazy or were the Patriots known as the Bay State Patriots for a few months between Boston Patriots and New England Patriots? I can't find any fans who remember this.Jeffrey Anderson

I'm in no position to vouch for your mental condition, but as far as the team names go, you're absolutely right, Jeffrey. Our friends at The Hall at Patriot Place have come through for us once again. According to their records, for a few weeks prior to becoming the New England Patriots, the franchise went by the name of Bay State Patriots. However, at least one newspaper headline referred to them as the "BS Patriots," and, for obvious PR reasons, there was little choice but to rethink that decision. Hence, they became known as the New England Patriots, which, to me, has a much better ring to it, anyway, and is much more inclusive a term.
Erik Scalavino

Gentlemen, I'm sure I'm not the only question around this topic, but do you have any insight as to why the team has built good depth into just about every position except the one that appears to be most concerning. I'm not suggesting that we go out and sign free agents or draft players for the sake of it, but to not add depth through either, to the LB position, at this point? One LB out of 12 picks in the draft where you took 6 linemen....There had to be a LB in round 4 or 5 that would have been worth taking a shot with to add competition....there has to be 1 or 2 FAs out there that are worth a flyer....our one drafted LB is out for the year and what happens if the whole Jason Taylor thing doesn't materialize? Where does that leave the team? Am I overly concerned or are you beginning to feel it as well. Thanks for making the offseason tolerable with your insights.Dave Barry

Hey Guys, I really enjoy reading your responses each week. I know you have said you are tired of fans asking about acquiring released players, but this might have a different twist. We drafted linebacker Tyrone McKenzie who is out for the year on injured reserve and the Rams have released their top tackler in Pisa Tinoisamoa. The Patriots could sign a veteran linebacker for a replacement for a rookie without strings attached. The only thing I could not find in the reports is the type of linebacker (ILB or OLB) Pisa was? What is your opinion? Thanks and keep up the good work.
David Molstad

I have a question, what do you think we should do at LB? I feel it is still the weakness of the team, and also think it would be smart for us to go and get a proven vet like Jason Taylor. Or get Pisa Tinoisamoa or Larry Foote. What do you think?John Opitz

With Erik enjoying some vacation time this Tuesday morning, I had to pinch-hit late in the game here for the Ask PFW mailbag. There are just too many questions about the LB slot to let them go unanswered. These three are just a sampling of the constant flow of linebacker queries we've been getting. Here's the bottom line – there is a clear lack of depth at both inside linebacker and outside linebacker at this point. You could also argue, with all due respect to Pierre Woods, that there is a lack of a starter at outside linebacker in the slot formerly held by Mike Vrabel. And Bill Belichick clearly didn't like the size/speed ratio of the edge rushers in this year's draft class. Many of the prospects were too short/slow in his mind. Those are the facts.

After that, we're left with significant speculation. Jason Taylor remains on the open market. The clouds of reported smoke connecting him to the Patriots remain. But until he signs somewhere he retains his status as a great unknown. Now we have Tinoisamoa to add to that speculation. (Foote is not in the mix as he signed with the Lions last week.) Tinoisamoa would be an inside linebacker in New England. At 6-1, 240-something he's got the right build. He had a 100-plus tackles for the Rams last year. I'm not sure his skills directly translate to New England's 34 scheme, but I'd certainly give him a call and bring him in for a look. I'm holding out hope that Taylor will end up in New England to fill a void and stabilize the depth chart on the outside. Adding another veteran to the mix inside would create depth next to Jerod Mayo beyond the aging Tedy Bruschi, the unproven passing down player in Gary Guyton and the oft-injured Eric Alexander. The need is cleary there. It remains to be seen if Belichick still finds a way to address that need this late in the process.

And I'll end with a joke that I already used on Friday on the Patriots Football Weekly blog on Patriots.com At the very least the Patriots should sign Tinoisamoa because it would give the team a wicked Pisa linebacker. Ha! Ha! (Yes, I always laugh at my own jokes.)
Andy Hart

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