When the Patriots signed free agent linebacker Rosevelt Colvin earlier this offseason, the team took a giant step towards improving the athleticism level of an aging group of linebackers. With that said, the rest of the roster of linebackers is still group of players on the down side of their careers with numerous injury histories.
Should the Patriots make the expected move to a more consistent 3-4 front, the inside guys as it stands now will be Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi. Johnson is coming off his first fully healthy season since 1997, but is still an aging veteran with a serious injury history. Up until last season Bruschi was a very reliable player, but he missed the final four games of the year with a knee injury. And while Bruschi has played well at all the linebacker positions in his career, questions remain as to whether he can maintain a high level of play as a permanent inside guy.
After the starters, the other inside backers currently on the Patriots roster include Pro Bowl special teamer Larry Izzo, NFLE allocate Courtney Ledyard and the man of limitless transactions, Maugaula Tuitele. While Izzo is a capable injury replacement and a lock for a roster spot based on his special teams work, the other two would have to be considered outside shots to make the team come late August.
But with that said, this is not an overly deep or talent-filled draft for inside linebackers. In fact, Maryland's E.J. Henderson is considered the top prospect at the position and projects to go in the latter part of the first round, if not later in the second. At 6-1, 245 pounds, Henderson is a run stopping force that put up great numbers in his college career, but may be only a first and second down player at least early in his career. The second rated inside guy is Kansas State's Terry Pierce, expected to go sometime in the second round.
After Henderson and Pierce there is slight drop to the second level of inside backers. Other inside linebackers expected to go in the mid rounds of the draft include LSU's Bradie James, Michigan's Victor Hobson, West Texas A&M's Chaun Thompson, Syracuse's Clifton Smith and TCU's LaMarcus McDonald. Of that group, one of the most likely candidates could be James. He has the obvious Bill Belichick and Nick Saban connection, played in a similar defense as he would join in New England and the team has already shown some interest.
Late draft possibilities in the middle could include the likes of Arizona's Lance Briggs, Georgia's Tony Gilbert, Ohio State's Matt Wilhelm, South Florida's Kawika Mitchell, Mississippi State's Mario Haggan and Texas Tech's Lawrence Flugence.
When it comes to outside backers, the Patriots seemingly have more veteran players than playing time. On top of Colvin's key addition they still have last year's starters in Roman Phifer and Mike Vrabel as well as the unique situation of Willie McGinest. McGinest can still rush the passer on occasion, but is not a full-time solution at either end or backer. And while Matt Chatham, who recently signed a three-year contract, could be injury insurance his main role like Izzo's is on special teams. Injuries will obviously play a large part in determining playing time, as well as how Belichick chooses to use his mix of aging talent,but a young, athletic playmaker is a long-term need.
The player in the year's draft that epitomizes athletic playmaker is Georgia's Boss Bailey. The younger brother of Redskin's Pro Bowl corner Champ, the 6-3, 233-pound Bailey has 4.3 speed and a unique mix of physical skills. While some have questioned his tackling ability and football instincts, Bailey should go in the middle of round one.
After Bailey, the next crop of outside backers includes Pittsburgh's Gerald Hayes, Oregon State's Nick Barnett, Cincinnati's defensive end convert Antwan Peek, Virginia's Angelo Crowell and Ohio State's Cie Grant. Some guys who could be around in the later rounds of the draft include Hawaii's Pisa Tinoisamoa, Florida's Mike Nattiel, South Florida's Shurron Pierson, Georgia's Chris Clemons, Purdue's Joe Odom, Vanderbilt's Hunter Hillenmeyer, Tennessee's Eddie Moore and NC State's Shawn Price.
Wednesday we will look at the secondary.