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Roster Preview: Linebackers

Like the defensive line, there seem to be lingering questions about the depth of New England's linebackers, though the re-signing of Roman Phifer went a long way in helping ease the concern.

The questions are far more about health concerns than talent concerns. The truth is, the Patriots boast a roster of six players with legitimate starting experience and ability, including Willie McGinest, who will work as both a linebacker and defensive end. How many teams around the league can match that number of starters on the roster heading into training camp?

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            As has been the case for the last few seasons, the course of competition will be altered greatly depending on the health of **Ted Johnson**. When on the field, he's as good as any middle linebacker in the game. Last season, after missing the season opener, Johnson had 42 tackles from Week Two through Week Nine. He then missed three games and finished with four tackles combined in the final four weeks, losing much playing time to other players who stepped up and filled the roles very well.  

Should Johnson stay healthy, Tedy Bruschi would be able to slide over to his more natural position. Regardless of what happens, Bruschi will be on the field a ton, as he has been since 1999. That season he became a fulltime starter for the entire year, posting a career-high 138 tackles. Since then he has been the most consistent linebacker on the team, taking a leadership role in the locker room and becoming a play-maker between the lines.

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            Returning are Phifer and **Mike Vrabel**, both outside linebackers who made a huge impact in their first season in New England.  

The only linebacker to start every game, Phifer finished second on the team with 92 tackles and also posted three sacks, two interceptions and four passes defensed. He joined the team after last training camp began and wound up playing more than 95 percent of the defensive snaps on the season, becoming a highly respected presence in the locker room along the way.

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            On the opposite side is Vrabel, who proved he could be an every-down player after not starting any of the 51 career games he played before joining the Patriots. He had 60 tackles – more than doubling his career total up to last season – and was effective in pass coverage, defending nine passes. His blitz in the Super Bowl forced a **Kurt Warner** interception that **Ty Law** returned for a touchdown for the game's first points. One of the many free agents heading into the prime of his career, Vrabel figures to be a high-impact player once again.  

Behind those four players are McGinest and free agent addition Ryan Phillips. We say McGinest is behind the others only because he'll spend time at end and linebacker, not as an indication of his talent. Obviously he'll be a major part of the defense, but it's unclear how much time he'll spend as a backer.

Phillips will also see significant time in the rotation and could push for a starting job, though he'll most likely be a reserve. After being cut just before the start of last season in Oakland, he signed with Indianapolis three weeks into the season and started six of the 13 games he played. Despite the short time, he finished with 47 tackles and one sack. Before last season he spent four years with the New York Giants, including two as a starter. He was a starter on the 2000 New York team that lost in the Super Bowl, so he brings quality experience that bolsters the depth here.

The remaining linebackers are special teams captain Larry Izzo, Marty Moore, Matt Chatham, Ratcliff Thomas and Maugaula Tuitele. Izzo is a lock for the roster as one of the top special teams players in the business. Last season he led the team with 22 stops in the kicking game. He rarely played in the regular defense last season, but has done so in the past.

Chatham, Moore and Thomas are all proven quality players on special teams, but none are serious factors in the regular defense right now. Chatham is the youngest of the three and played well last year, getting 12 special teams stops in 11 games.

Moore's situation is a tough call. He was brought in just before the start of last season and played the first two games before an Achilles injury landed him on injured reserve and ended his year. On March 5, just weeks after the 2001 season ended, the team waived him, only to re-sign him on May 31, less than two months later. If he can fully recover from the Achilles problem, he can contribute both in the kicking game and on defense, but a roster spot is by no means guaranteed for the long-time fan favorite.

Thomas did not play for anyone in 2001, but in 2000 he led Indianapolis with 20 special teams tackles. In 34 career games he has 55 stops in the kicking game, which is where he will be most competitive during training camp. Also on the roster is NFL Europe allocation Maugaula Tuitele. Over the last two seasons he has appeared in two games, getting one defensive tackle and one special teams tackle.

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