Based on last fall, four letters spell out the future of the linebacker position in New England – Mayo.
No. 10 overall pick Jerod Mayotook the Patriots defense by storm, leading the team with 139 tackles on the way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The former Tennessee star – and the first linebacker drafted higher than the fifth round on head coach Bill Belichick'swatch – impressed coaches and teammates alike with his thirst for the game, work ethic and overall professionalism.
He started from opening day and played in more than 90-percent of the team's defensive snaps. He showed early on that he could be the tough run-stuffer as well as an option on passing downs. It took quite a while for Belichick to dip his toe in the linebacker waters early on draft weekend, but when he did he certainly seems to have pulled out a winner with an All-Pro future.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, Mayo was arguably the only consistently positive story to come out of the linebacker position in 2008. Rather, injuries became the overwhelming theme as Adalius Thomasand top outside backup Pierre Woodslanded on injured reserve, while Tedy Bruschimissed the last three games of action with a knee injury. Rookie draft picks Shawn Crableand Bo Ruudalso ended up on IR, and Mike Vrabelreportedly dealt with a shoulder issue.
It all came together to see the group struggle at times against both the run and the pass. Most glaring were failures in pass coverage to help out in the middle of the field against opposing tight ends as well as in pass rush. Vrabel's production saw the greatest drop-off as the 2007 All-Pro followed up his 12.5-sack effort with just four this fall.
By the end of the season, New England was scrambling not just to find production at linebacker but also merely to find bodies to take the field. Junior Seauand Rosevelt Colvinwere signed off the surfboard and backyard respectively in the first week of December. Both semi-retired veterans saw significant action in the Patriots four-game winning streak over the final month.
As much as Seau and Colvin made for a nice story to close the season, they're clearly not a part of the future at linebacker. Combine that with the aging that continues around Mayo in the starting lineup – Bruschi, Thomas and Vrabel will be 36, 32 and 34 by the start of next season respectively – and there remains uncertainty at the linebacker position despite the addition of the first impact rookie to the group in a decade.
]()That said, Mayo may not be the only potential contributor to come out the 2008 rookie class. Undrafted free agent Gary Guytonwas a pleasant surprise. He not only made the roster but saw significant defensive action in many sub situations from early on in the season. At the very least he'd appear to be an option on passing downs moving forward, but he also would seem to have some of the physical skills to make him a developmental option on regular defense.
As a sixth-round pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve Ruud is a total unknown and likely long shot moving forward. But Crable, the team's third-round pick, is an intriguing figure. He's got the pure build to fill the outside linebacker position in the 3-4. It's unfortunate that he landed on IR with a shin injury in a year when he likely would have gotten reps at the position and valuable experience that could have helped him as he continues in his career.
The future also seems intriguing for third-year veteran Woods who saw plenty of action before missing the final month with a jaw injury. He started three of 12 games and, while he's a restricted free agent, there's a good chance he'll be back in New England to benefit from the experience. Oft-injured special teamer Eric Alexanderis also a restricted free agent who ended the season on injured reserve.
Actually the only semi-major free agency issue the Patriots face at linebacker is with veteran special teams ace Larry Izzo. The special teams captain led New England with 14 special teams stops. Considering the change in the coaching ranks on special teams with Brady Seely's departure, it would probably be beneficial to the unit to retain its most experienced, knowledgeable and communicative player.
That said, 2009 will represent another step in the evolution of the linebacker corps in New England. Belichick and position coach Matt Patriciawill continue to oversee the transformation of a group that for so many years has been so very much veteran based.
Getting healthy will be the biggest goal of New England's linebackers this offseason. Beyond that Belichick and Co. need to continue to retool the group by blending the remaining veteran core with the mix of youth that's led by Mayo.
THE LB ROSTER
(players listed alphabetically, as of January 2009)
52 – Eric Alexander@
54 – Tedy Bruschi
95 – Rosevelt Colvin#
98 – Shawn Crable
59 – Gary Guyton
53 – Larry Izzo#
51 – Jerod Mayo
49 – Vince Redd
91 – Bo Ruud*
55 – Junior Seau#
96 – Adalius Thomas*
50 – Mike Vrabel
58 – Pierre Woods*@
- -- Ended 2008 on Injured Reserve.
-- Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.@ -- Scheduled to be a restricted free agent.
*Up next in the Position Snapshot series: wide receiver, coming tomorrow (Thursday, Jan. 22). *