Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in New England, the Patriots have drafted just four linebackers, with none of them being selected higher than the fifth round. That trend could come to an end when this year's draft rolls around. Starters Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin will all be over 30 years of age when the 2007 season kicks off, and Tully Banta-Cain is scheduled to be come an unrestricted free agent.
Belichick has pointed out in the past that one of the most difficult positions to evaluate is outside linebacker in the 3-4 system. A majority of outside linebackers in the 3-4 played defensive end in college and don't have the coverage skills needed to step in and contribute right away in the Patriots scheme. Even productive players like Vrabel and Colvin needed time to adjust to what Belichick expects out of his outside linebackers.
NFL Network's draft analyst Mike Mayock agrees with Belichick that trying to project college defensive ends to 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL is a difficult task.
"It's really difficult to evaluate college defensive ends into the 3-4 defense because what you're trying to do is watch tape of a guy who plays with his hand down," Mayock said. "Then you're trying to decide what kind of player he could become standing up. The process gets complicated because only two or three college teams use the 3-4 as their base defense on the Division I level. You have to try and project the player into your system, and that's what makes the evaluation process so difficult."
Mayock also believes the reason New England has neglected the linebacker position early on in the draft has a lot to do with the fact that they're routinely selecting late in Round 1.
"The biggest problem for the Patriots is they're always drafting at the end of the first round. Because of that, the high-impact 3-4 rushers are already off the board. So players like Kamerion Wimbley and Manny Lawson from last year, DeMarcus Ware from two years ago, those guys are gone at that point."
While it may be hard for a rookie to make a huge contribution in the Patriots defense, they do need to bring in some young players at the linebacker position sooner or later. This year's draft is led by Quentin Moses (Georgia), Jarvis Moss (Florida), LaMarr Woodley (Michigan) and Anthony Spencer (Purdue). All four could be selected in the first round of the draft.
Although, according to Mayock, this crop of 3-4 edge rushers pales in comparison to some of the other draft classes that have come along in recent years.
"I don't think this particular group of DE/OLB has that sure-fire player like some of the previous drafts," he said. "Last year I could watch Kamerion Wimbley on tape and be pretty sure that he had a good chance to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. I felt the same way with Manny Lawson and DeMarcus Ware. This year there are some high visibility guys but I don't have a good feel for any of them yet."
Moses (6-5, 252) was projected to be a Top 10 pick heading into his senior season. He was the highest ranked prospect entering 2005 by BLESTO, one of the two scouting services used by NFL teams. Moses lofty ranking was in large part due to the11.5 sacks he had as a junior. However, his stock and production dropped during his senior year. Moses only got to the quarterback four times last season and was criticized for not playing hard all the time. Still, he may be the most physically gifted 3-4 outside linebacker prospect in this draft and could help himself if he puts together some impressive workouts.
"Out of the high-profile players, Quentin Moses is the one guy who really intrigues me," Mayock said. "I was extremely disappointed with his performance on the field last year but he's the one player that has the physical ability to rush the passer and drop back into coverage as a 3-4 linebacker."
The last time Moss (6-6, 255) was on the field, he was terrorizing Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in the National Championship Game. Moss battled back from a staph infection in his pelvis bone that almost cost him his career three years ago to record 7.5 sacks last season. While Moss has shown a quick burst off the line and tremendous closing speed, talk at the Combine is he's better suited to be a defensive end in the 4-3. If that's the case, he wouldn't be a good fit with the Patriots.
After playing defensive end as a freshman, Woodley (6-2, 270) switched to outside linebacker during his sophomore and junior seasons at Michigan. He moved back to defensive end last year and had his most productive season with the Wolverines, finishing with 12.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a loss. Woodley has been projected as a possible 3-4 outside linebacker at the pro level. Although one opposing offensive coach in the Big 10 thinks that would be a mistake.
"LaMarr is a great player but he's a defensive end, not a linebacker," the coach who asked to remain anonymous said. "He excels at getting to the quarterback but in the Patriots scheme, where they ask their linebackers to drop back in coverage, he would struggle. I think LaMarr will be a good pro player but as a defensive end, not a 3-4 linebacker. Michigan tried to use him in that role at times and he wasn't nearly as effective as he was playing with his hand down."
Spencer (6-3, 267) is a player who has seen his stock rise after an impressive Senior Bowl week. He's an excellent athlete with tremendous speed off the corner. As a senior, Spencer had 10.5 sacks and ranked second in the nation with 26.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He also has some experience in coverage, something a lot of other players at his position can't say.
"He's played some standup in our defense when we shift from a four-man front to a three-man front, so he does have experience playing without his hand on the ground," Purdue's defensive line coach Terrell Williams said. "I think Anthony is one of those rare guys that has a combination of things. He really has good quickness and can change direction without losing speed. He's also a guy who bench presses 500 pounds and squats close to 700, so he does have both the power and speed to play standup linebacker in a 3-4 scheme."
After the top four players, some guys to keep an eye on are Victor Abiamiri (Notre Dame), Zak DeOssie (Brown) and Dan Bazuin (Central Michigan). Abiamiri and DeOssie both said they've already spoken with the Patriots at the Combine.
Abiamiri (6-4, 267) played under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame where he finished his career with 30 starts and 20 quarterback sacks. Abiamiri also proved to be a team-leader with the Irish. He was named Notre Dame's lineman of the year the past two seasons by his teammates.
"A few teams have talked with me about playing in the 3-4 and asked about my experience dropping back in coverage and coming off rushing the passer," Abiamiri said. "A have a little bit of experience in that scheme. I have the utmost confidence in my abilities that I can play that position if a team wants me to. The Patriots and Chargers are two teams that have asked me about my knowledge and experience playing in the 3-4 defense."
DeOssie (6-4, 250) is the son of former Patriot Steve DeOssie and the first player from Brown to ever be invited to the Combine. However, he certainly wasn't shy about being in front of the camera. DeOssie stole the show on Saturday, speaking for more than 30 minutes and creating numerous outbursts of laughter from media members.
A former Patriots ballboy, DeOssie played inside linebacker for three seasons at Brown but said he wouldn't have any trouble fitting into New England's 3-4 scheme as an edge rusher. He's also a long snapper, a skill that will add to his value on draft day.
DeOssie was all smiles when asked about the possibility of playing for Belichick in New England.
"Playing for the Patriots, it would be a dream come true," DeOssie said. "That would be nice. I know the people there. They're great people, a great organization. That would be a true honor. But I think I'll fit in wherever I go."
The young linebacker also spoke highly of Belichick on a personal level.
"I like to think of him (Belichick) as a family friend and keep the football thing separate," he said. "He used to teach me how to throw the ball in high school when I played quarterback. He filmed my throwing sessions and took time out of training camp to tell me what I was doing wrong. Unfortunately, it didn't work out because I'm playing linebacker now. But that's the type of person he is and I respect him for it."
Bazuin (6-3, 266) is a very interesting 3-4 outside linebacker prospect and someone who might be a good fit with the Patriots. A smart player known for his work ethic, Bazuin is extremely quick coming off the edge as a pass rusher. At Central Michigan, he set school records for sacks (33) and tackles for a loss (60). He was a three-time All-MAC first team honoree and set a school record with 16 sacks in 2005.
"You know, that's an option for me," Bazuin said about switching to the 3-4. "The two positions I'm suited for are outside linebacker in the 3-4 and defensive end in a 4-3. I'm planning on doing the linebacker drills as well as the defensive line drills here. Plenty of teams have come to me and have asked if I'm willing to make that change to outside linebacker. There were quite a few teams that have talked to me about that. I see moving to outside linebacker as a challenge. I feel that I can do just as well at the outside linebacker position as I can at end."
The Patriots haven't drafted linebackers high under Belichick and they may not do so again this year. However, there appears to be a number of talented options throughout the draft for New England to chose from, even if they pass up on an outside linebacker in the early rounds.