By: Bob George/BosSports.net
June 16, 2007

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2006 New England Patriots. Today: linebackers.

When Adalius Thomas signed with the Patriots shortly after the Pro Bowl, it was hailed as one of the biggest signings in Patriot history.

Now, after a few Randy Mosses and Donte Stallworths and Wes Welkers later, it's almost an afterthought. Moss alone has dominated the offseason Patriot hot stove talk, relegating Thomas to "oh yeah, remember him?" status. The contract plight of Asante Samuel has also put a damper on the welcoming of the top linebacker free agent to Foxborough, making one wonder if the addition of Thomas might be negated by the subtraction (if it happens) of Samuel.

And there are still lingering concerns regarding whether or not Bill Belichick brought in the right guy. Thomas played outside linebacker at Baltimore, whereas the more urgent linebacker needs for the Patriots were at inside backer. With Tedy Bruschi aging, Mike Vrabel better suited at outside backer, Junior Seau hurting but still wanting another shot at helping the Patriots in 2007, and nobody out there yet who has succeeded in replacing Ted Johnson, one has to hope beyond hope that Thomas is as versatile as Belichick says he is.

The Ravens play a 3-4 base defense, like the Patriots do. Everyone on the planet took notice of Belichick schmoozing with Thomas at the Pro Bowl (which Belichick had to participate in as AFC head coach because his team lost the AFC Championship Game), and sure enough, the subsequent rumors became reality when Thomas signed on with the Patriots on March 2. The first words out of everyone's mouth when Thomas was signed centered around "versatility". Thomas would be able to fit into Belichick's defensive scheme, even though he achieved the success he had in Baltimore as an outside backer.

One of two scenarios is likely to happen. The first is that Vrabel will return to his old outside position, and Thomas will take over the "Mike" position inside. The other scenario is that Thomas will form perhaps the best outside linebacker tandem in the conference with Rosevelt Colvin and let Vrabel slide back inside, where he finished up last year. Vrabel works much better on the outside, but is intelligent enough to be effective in either position. Thomas is being counted on to do much the same, be able to play both inside and outside, depending upon where the greatest needs are.

Colvin needs to continue his long rehabilitation from his near career-ending hip injury in 2004. While he has regained a lot of his past effectiveness, he is still looking for that old speed burst he had in Chicago. Colvin turns 30 in September, so his window of great speed may start to close soon. He, like Vrabel, is very smart, and still gives one of the best locker room interviews of anyone on the team.

There are two wild cards regarding linebackers. One of them is finding out how much gas Bruschi has left in his tank. He does not appear to have any lingering effects of his 2005 stroke, but age may be catching up with Bruschi (he and Troy Brown are the only remaining Patriots from the Bill Parcells era), and he is no longer able to make all the plays he did when the Patriots won their three Super Bowls. He still makes many of them, but Belichick needs to figure out how much depreciation of Bruschi's skills the team can tolerate before needing to make adjustments. The eternal fan favorite Bruschi, who turns 34 in June, still has his fiery spirit and his work ethic, and any adjustments that might be made would be minor at the most.

The other wild card is depth, and that depth was exposed in the championship game loss at Indianapolis. Eric Alexander is a huge, precipitous dropoff from the starters, and the play late in the game where he was burned by some nobody named Bryan Fletcher for 32 yards became one of the symbols of the demise of last year's team. Larry Izzo is still more valuable on special teams than he is a reserve inside backer. Pierre Woods and Cory Mays aren't anyone who will turn into the next Marty Moore, draft position notwithstanding.

Seau has stated that he wants to make another comeback with the Patriots. He started 10 of the first 11 games last year for the Patriots until his season came to a sudden end against Chicago. He became a fan favorite, and showed that he still had a lot left in his Hall of Fame body until the injury. He is now 38 years old, but he could receive a great deal of attention if more veteran depth is needed come August.

The Patriots took two linebackers late in the draft. Justin Rogers of SMU was taken in the sixth round, and Oscar Lua of USC was claimed in the seventh round. Rogers is more of a speed linebacker than a strong one. Lua, on the other hand, is better known for being magnanimous than being good; reports out of USC said that Rey Maualuga got his starting linebacker job with the Trojans because of how Lua helped him, concluding that "that's the kind of player Lua is". Lua had been slated to take over for Lofa Tatupu at middle linebacker, but instead helped Maualuga get the job. It is possible that Lua may be to linebacker what Matt Cassel was to quarterback at USC.

How Samuel's situation will play out will be discussed in the next installment, but it does require some thought. What kind of pressure will be on the front seven if the cornerbacks cannot defend the way they will be expected to? Will Thomas and Colvin be required to blitz more often? Will Vrabel be expected to concentrate more on pass coverage?

Going further, will defenses try and run up the middle more on Bruschi? Would this sort of prospect require Belichick to ponder a switch to a 4-3 base? Or would lack of run stoppage require help from Rodney Harrison? Despite the star quality of this group, there are certainly a lot of questions that will need to be answered come September.

And how strange that would be, Moss becoming a model citizen and a productive receiver while the defense cannot deal with age, depth or franchised cornerbacks.

Next installment: secondary.


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