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Linebacker could be an issue in draft

If there is a glaring need on the Patriots defense, it is the linebacking corps. Unfortunately the pool of draft-eligible linebackers does not appear deep once again.

New England's plans for this weekend's draft certainly include keeping an eye on the position. Just how closely the team will look depends on how the Roman Phifer situation is resolved. A report on late Wednesday said Phifer had agreed to terms with Oakland, but a Raiders spokeswomen said no deal was signed. On Thursday, it was reported that the Patriots and Phifer were still in contact and that something could still be worked out.

With or without Phifer the Patriots need help at linebacker. Head Coach Bill Belichick said the team will play a base 4-3 scheme, but still hasn't determined how often New England will show a 3-4. Either way, the only two regulars that can be counted on are inside backer Tedy Bruschi and strongside linebacker Mike Vrabel. Bruschi has become one of the steadiest players on the team, and has shown the versatility to play inside and outside. Vrabel earned praise from Belichick after the season. According to the coach, Vrabel did not make a single mental error during the season.

Also returning is Ted Johnson, who restructured his contract again to stay with the team. When on the field, he showed last season he is still a quality player. However, he started just five games and played only 12. Over the last four seasons he has missed 21 games, his health making him a constant question mark. If he stays healthy, he can man the middle and free up Bruschi to go back outside.

Newcomer Ryan Phillips has been a starter in three of his five seasons and could challenge for a job in camp. At the very least he'll provide a decent backup, particularly if Andy Katzenmoyer completely wears out his welcome. Katzenmoyer, who missed all of last season and most of 2000 because of a neck injury, has not contacted Belichick or anyone else about participation in the offseason workout program. After an incident in which he bolted camp last summer, his communication skills can't be winning him points with the team.

The rest of the linebackers are either special teams standouts or fringe players. Larry Izzo will be a part of the team leading the special teams units again. Matt Chatham played well in the kicking game, and should fight for a role again. Kole Ayi was a special teams standout while with St. Louis, but got hurt in his only game with the Patriots and is an unknown. Last on the depth chart is Maugaula Tuitele, who has appeared in one game each of the last two seasons and is currently playing in NFL Europe.

Unfortunately there is not much sure-fire talent in the draft. Northwestern's Napoleon Harris and South Carolina's Kalimba Edwards, a tweener who also could play end, are considered the top prospects, but for the most part both are projected to go late in the first round or early in the second.

Last season Pittsburgh got Kendrell Bell early in the second round at No. 39 overall, and St. Louis picked up Tommy Polley three picks later. Carolina was the only team to draft a linebacker in the first round, grabbing Dan Morgan with the 11th pick. There is a good chance New England will look for a linebacker within the first couple rounds, especially if Phifer is in fact gone.

Check back Friday for a look at the defensive line.

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