SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Most players don't peak in their 11th NFL season, but one could make a strong argument that's been the case with Mike Vrabel.
The Patriots jack-of-all-trades linebacker has been one of the team's steadiest contributors during his seven years in New England. Since arriving as a free agent back in 2001, Vrabel has been a staple in the Patriots defense. But that staple has been attached to a number of different areas over the years. At first he appeared to be an outside pass rusher who could get to the quarterback. Then he added some pass coverage responsibilities to his job description.
As his career continued, he made a move inside midway through the 2005 season as free agent pickups Monty Beisel and Chad Brown failed to fill the void left by Ted Johnson's retirement and Tedy Bruschi's return from a stroke. He remained inside for portions of 2006 after Junior Seau was lost for the year with a broken arm in November.
Through it all Vrabel's performance never wavered. If he lined up inside he ably took on guards and plugged holes in the running game. On the outside he set the edge effectively and got after the quarterback better than anyone else on the team. And oh by the way he also has been a pretty effective goal line tight end.
While Vrabel's first 10 years were certainly successful, he's brought his game to new heights in 2007. Playing every game at left outside linebacker, Vrabel has been a force. He posted a team- and career-high 12.5 sacks, 77 tackles and four forced fumbles, making a prophet out of his longtime teammate and fellow 'backer Bruschi, who has said repeatedly that Vrabel would be an All-Pro if he played on the outside exclusively.
That's exactly what happened as Vrabel will be making his first-ever trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl as well as being named to the All-Pro squad.
"We all speak pretty highly of each other," Vrabel said of Bruschi's words. "We all have a lot of respect for each other, where everybody's come from and the kinds of careers and setbacks that we've had and now welcoming Adalius [Thomas] into that group. There are always little subcultures inside a team because you're always meeting with each other – the o-line, the d-line, the linebackers – those are pretty tight groups and we go to bat for each other."
Modesty aside, Vrabel has been remarkable this season. He never complained about the constant movement over the past several years, but it had to be rewarding for Vrabel to have such a productive season individually playing back home in his comfort spot.
"If you play well and your team has success I think you can be satisfied with your effort for the season," Vrabel said. "I've done that in the past and there have been years when I've played well and we've won Super Bowls. I would say that this year is pretty similar to those."
Speaking of Vrabel, his expertise as a goal line tight end is well documented with eight career touchdowns plus two more in the postseason. But do you know how Bill Belichick came up with the idea of using the linebacker on offense?
"When Drew [Bledsoe] was here my first year he went to Bill and said I think this guy could actually help us offensively," Vrabel explained. "The year after we won the first Super Bowl the first time we did it was in San Diego. We lost the game, though, and that made catching the touchdown anti-climactic."
Vrabel used to run pass routes before every game with Bledsoe using him as part of his pregame routine. Obviously the decision was a good one because Vrabel has become a valuable red zone weapon for Tom Brady.
Chance of a lifetime
While it certainly wasn't news considering the Patriots are trying to make history on Sunday, it was still interesting to hear Brady on discuss the importance of Super Bowl XLII on Thursday during his press conference at the team hotel.
"I think it's the biggest game in all of our lives," Brady said. "The entire team, and coaches, we're going to be remembering this game for as long as we live. We're either going to have great memories of this experience, or it's going to be a missed opportunity. There aren't too many teams in the history of the NFL – none as a matter of fact – that are 18-0 going into this game."
Head of the class
Belichick was asked about the team's current draft class, which hasn't yielded much in the way of production. First-round pick Brandon Meriweather has improved steadily throughout the year to the point where he's now entrenched as an extra defensive back in the Patriots subpackages. But beyond him, the Patriots haven't gotten many contributions from the rest of the draftees.
But the coach had a different take on things. "Our second-round pick was Wes Welker and our fourth-round pick was Randy Moss," Belichick said in reference to trades that brought the two receivers aboard in exchange for draft picks. "So even though they weren't draft choices, they've been significant players on our team."
"We've had a couple other players that are on injured reserve, so their seasons were cut a little bit short. Brandon is the only true rookie we drafted, and then of course Matt[Gutierrez], our third quarterback, had a good preseason and made our roster."