Tedy Bruschi – Last season was a jumble when Bruschi went down, severely weakening the Patriots defense for a time. Not only was he a central playmaker in the Patriots 3-4 defense, but also losing Bruschi meant the team was without their defensive play caller. His offseason stroke was a surprise to everyone, and many thought he wouldn't return. He proved even the loudest naysayers wrong. Bruschi returned for the last 10 games of the season, and things looked up almost instantly. During his first game back against Buffalo, Bruschi recorded 10 tackles and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Everyone noticed his rebound, and he's been nominated for an ESPY award for his performance. Although he didn't dress for the last regular season game against Miami and didn't play in the AFC Wild Card game against Jacksonville, Bruschi's presence was certainly felt in the Patriots final loss to Denver. Now Bruschi returns for his eleventh season with the Patriots, and appears to be back to his old self. In typical Bruschi fashion, he was flying around at mini-camp and kept the defensive intensity up, even jawing with the offense every now and then. As long as he remains healthy, he's sure to be the beating heart of this years Patriots defense.
Monty Beisel – With Bruschi injured, Beisel started out last season with a lot of weight on his shoulders and not enough weight under his pads. Although he played in a 3-4 defense during his last year with the Chiefs, he's said before that it had little in common with the Patriots 3-4, so he had a lot to learn and little time to learn it. Moreover, he was the new Mike backer; trying to call the plays in a defense he didn't yet understand. Now, Beisel knows the system and should be a lot more comfortable on the field. Beisel was also criticized for getting pushed around last year and his compact size was a problem in trying to fill big holes. He's added weight this offseason in anticipation of his high spot on the inside linebacker totem pole, which bodes well for him. After Bruschi's return, Beisel's game really improved late in the year. That the trend could continue in 2006.
Mike Vrabel – Perhaps the defensive MVP for the Patriots in 2005 when he moved inside, Vrabel really stepped up and got the job done. He was a defensive captain last year and became a leader when the Patriots defense was craving one. Last year was the best season ever for the former Steeler, and he led the team with a career-high 114 tackles, 80 of which were solos. In fact, the only numbers he didn't improve on in 2005 were total sacks, of which he had 4.5 last year. Ideally, the team would probably like to move Vrabel back outside, where he can take advantage of his pass-rushing skills off the edge, and hopefully bring his total sacks back to where they were in 2003 (9.5 for the season). If linebacker depth isn't affected by injuries and he goes back outside this could be the best year yet for Vrabel.
Rosevelt Colvin – Although he's been plagued with injuries since being drafted by the Bears in 1999, Colvin plays well when he's healthy. He really turned it on during the second half of last season, starting the last 11 games of the season and leading the team with 7.0 sacks. He seems to be completely healed from the hip injury he incurred during the second game of the 2003 season and if he can stay healthy, Colvin has a chance to have a career year. The most likely candidate for the second outside linebacker spot, Colvin looked good at mini-camp. As long as he can stay on the field, Colvin should have a monster season.
Eric Alexander – After two consecutive years of being signed from the practice squad, Alexander may finally have the experience to make the team this year. He saw a surprising number of reps at mini-camp and really gave the coaches a good look. If Alexander does well in training camp, this may be the year his hard work on the practice squad finally pays off, especially given the lack of depth the Patriots have at linebacker.
Tully Banta-Cain – Although his first name came to his mother in a dream the night before he was born, if Tully doesn't step up his game this year his dream may be over. After three years with the Patriots, Banta-Cain has not yet been able to make the grade at the linebacker position. In his defense, he has been a very solid contributor on special teams. With few qualified second-stringers, this could be Banta-Cain's chance to show he can get the job done. And he may do just that, since he played the best game of his career in the 2005 season finale against Miami with 7 tackles, 4 of which were solos. He'll need more efforts like that if he wants to find a place on the defense.
Barry Gardner – After signing with the Patriots in May, Gardner will be playing for his fifth team in an eight-year career. He was a contributor for the Eagles as well as the Browns, but struggled a bit last year with the Jets. If he learns the Patriots defense quickly, and finds his stride, he could be in the backup linebacker race given his NFL experience. Gardner will have to prove himself, and will be in the battle for a roster spot during training camp this year.
Ryan Claridge – This is basically Claridge's rookie season. Not only was he injured last year, he rehabbed in Las Vegas for personal reasons and wasn't around the team enough to learn the system. He wasn't on the field a lot during mini-camp and will at least need to show the potential and ability to play special teams to secure a roster spot.
Jeremy Mincey – This rookie from Florida has a lot of the physical skills the Patriots look for in an outside linebacker, though he mostly played defensive end in college. He wasn't a standout in mini-camp like Eric Alexander, but if he develops, he could be ready to make a big impact as an outside pass rusher in the near future.
Don Davis – Davis is a spiritual leader in the locker room and a special teams standout. He'll likely secure a position as a backup linebacker and will continue to grace the highlight reels as a punishing A-list special teamer.
Larry Izzo – Much like Davis, Izzo is a veteran leader on the team. His experience and advice will be valuable to the team, and he was the special teams captain last year. He has only missed one game since the beginning of the 1999 season, and will likely continue to contribute more on special teams than on defense unless injuries to the linebacker position force Izzo on the field more than usual.
Corey Mays, Freddie Roach, and Pierre Woods – Corey Mays looked pretty good in mini-camp, showing decent speed and the ability to recognize plays. He could find a spot on the practice squad. Freddie Roach and Pierre Woods were both signed as undrafted rookie free agents in May. Roach had two knee injuries in college, which pushed him down the draft boards. He looked a little slow moving laterally in mini-camp, but with a strong training camp, he has a shot for the practice squad as well. Woods didn't play to his potential at Michigan, and didn't show much at mini-camp. He seems to be a long shot to make the roster.
Overall – Potential injuries is probably at the top of the Patriots list of worries when it comes to linebackers. As of right now, the starting four look like the Fantastic Four, each of them super-powered to play his role.
As the heart and soul of the defense, Bruschi will no doubt be grinding bones to make his bread on the inside. His presence should make Beisel's job a bit easier along with the addition of about ten pounds to Beisel's frame.
Assuming Vrabel returns to the outside, he should be able to transition back to his old skill set and higher sack totals. The versatility Vrabel showed last year makes him an invaluable asset to the Patriots defense no matter where he lines up. Colvin, too, could have a great year on the outside as long as he stays healthy and plays with the same intensity he showed during the second half of last season.
The depth drops off a bit from there on and we'll all need to keep our fingers crossed that injuries don't plague the linebackers. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of reps by players like Alexander, Banta-Cain, and Gardner in the preseason, especially if any of them stands out during training camp. This will help keep backups ready in case the Patriots find themselves doing the linebacker shuffle again this year.