By: Bob George/BosSports.net
February 22, 2004

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: linebackers.

Rosevelt Colvin was supposedly the best free agent acquisition in Patriot history, and the Patriots won a Super Bowl without him.

His anticipated comeback in 2004 from a near career-ending hip injury is one reason why the Patriots are already favorites to repeat as champions. His return, which would greatly affect the playing time of Willie McGinest, should make a formidable defense even better, if he can regain his sacking skills which he had as a member of the Chicago Bears. But the fact that he missed most of the 2003 campaign and the Patriots were as good as they were without him speaks volumes about the greatness of this team, as well as the greatness of the linebacker position.

Some draft boards have the Patriots taking a linebacker with one of their first round picks (Miami's Jonathan Vilma is the name which comes up the most often), assuming after the running back needs are met. But you are left to wonder why the Patriots would need to address this position so high in the draft when the needs at running back, offensive line and perhaps safety are much more acute. How could a unit which withstood injury after injury and played at levels only seen rarely in NFL history need such a high draft pick for 2004?

The only logical reason to consider someone like Vilma is perhaps because of Roman Phifer. He turns 36 in March, and has major cap issues coming up. He is signed through 2005. According to PatsFans.com's capologist Miguel Benzan, his cap hit for 2004 is $3.25 million. If he is released after June 1st, that cap figure drops to an even $1 million. Phifer still shows no signs of aging (he was third on the team in tackles in 2003), and would seem to be a good fit for 2004 from a football standpoint. Fiscally, it may be a whole different story.

The other reason to look at someone like Vilma would be Ted Johnson. One of six current Patriots to have played in each of the last three Patriot Super Bowls, Johnson never became the monster linebacker everyone thought he would be in 1996, but is still a serviceable run stopper and a solid veteran. Johnson, 31, has been amenable to contract adjustments in previous years, though he did have a brief snit with Bill Belichick a few years back over such matters. His cap number for 2004 is just under $2 million, and would cost only $466,667 to keep on the books if he were let go by June 1st. His usage is more situational, all the more reason to make money cuts here.

Both Phifer and Johnson will be watched closely in the offseason. One scenario could be that Phifer is kept at a lower price, Johnson is cut, and a new draftee is brought in to eventually replace Phifer.

Tedy Bruschi enters the final year of his contract with a chance to make a big score at the end of the season, unless the Patriots lock him up before he hits the open market. Still underrated nationally but practically deified locally, he has become a rare player who has parlayed his undersized frame into a ferocious linebacker who has become the heart and soul of the defense. And that's saying a lot, given that the former heart and soul now plays strong safety for Buffalo.

What Bruschi gives the Patriots more than anything else is largely unquantifiable. He has the personality and the work ethic which makes players around him play at higher levels. He has a fire within him which is both unmistakable and contagious. It could be said that it was his fiery personality and his setting examples which helped get the Patriot linebacker corps through the rash of injuries they sustained in 2003, and what helped them drive the Patriots to a world championship. His lack of national recognition may be temporary, for if he continues to improve in the 2004 season, he will hit the open market with the impact of Ted Washington doing a cannonball off of a diving board.

Colvin's injury allowed McGinest to have a terrific season, one that earned him trips to both Houston and Honolulu in February. Will Mac is signed for three more years and has a cap hit of over $5 million coming up. He is on the record as saying that he will do a restructure if it will keep him in New England and help bring new and young talent on board. The emotional McGinest, 32, has become a solid veteran and a true team leader, and wants badly to finish his career here. He was inactive for only two games in 2003 and finished second on the team in sacks (5 ˝).

Meanwhile, on the other side, Mike Vrabel had a career year. The former backup Steeler linebacker, who has perhaps finally made Patriot Nation forgive him for causing Drew Bledsoe to fumble late in the Steeler 7-6 playoff win in 1997 against the Patriots, led the team with 9 ˝ sacks and had two interceptions. He will be forever remembered as a Patriot for catching a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, the first defensive player to make an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl since William Perry did it against the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

If Colvin does make it back and plays up to his pre-injury expectations, the combination of Vrabel and Colvin as bookend pass rushers will cause many offensive coordinators to have nightmares. If nothing else, if extra blockers are needed to occupy those rushing linebackers, the inside five defenders will make lots of hay with rushes up the middle, especially if tackles are used to help out. If a team brings in extra tight ends to help, it takes away wide receiver options, and the secondary's job becomes easier.

Depth at the linebacker position is nice, if not spectacular. Matt Chatham, Larry Izzo, Don Davis and Tully Banta-Cain were all used on special teams, and all performed good to excellent. But these men saw relatively little time actually as linebackers, the most time going to Chatham. Chatham's big moment was a fumble return for a touchdown against the Giants, Izzo had an interception against Buffalo in the season finale, and Banta-Cain had a sack of Bledsoe in that same contest. It has to be said that Izzo's value to the Patriots is on special teams, and that he is at best an ordinary, stopgap middle linebacker, much like what Larry Whigham was to the secondary in his days as a Patriot.

The one man to keep your eye on from this bunch is Banta-Cain. Along with the status of Phifer and Johnson, he could be the ultimate reason why a linebacker is or isn't chosen with a very high draft pick. The Patriots are very high on this guy, who could serve as a backup outside linebacker and spell Colvin or McGinest regularly if he develops the way the brass thinks he can.

One other very intriguing possibility as a potential impact linebacker is Dan Klecko. Some folks think that he is too small to be an NFL down lineman, but his speed and work ethic could buy him a spot in the linebacker corps. He did spend some time as a linebacker early on in the season. Klecko remains a versatile kid who has too much potential to be released any time soon. He is someone who will make huge contributions to this team once a suitable position is found for him, whatever that position may be.

Talking about the Patriot linebackers is great fun. Then you drift off to sleep and think about a healthy Colvin returning to the lineup.

It's a thought as delicious as a whoopie pie.

Next installment: secondary.


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