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Here’s the schedule for the training camp previews:
Monday: Tight Ends and Wide Receivers
Tuesday: Quarterbacks and Runningbacks
Wednesday: Special Teams and Coaching
Key Departures: Roosevelt Colvin, Junior Seau(?)
Key Arrivals: Jerod Mayo, Victor Hobson
Probably the most intriguing position heading into training camp is linebacker, considering the evolution of the corps taking place. Many felt 2007 would be Tedy Bruschi’s last go-round but No. 54 is back for another two years. Junior Seau did a satisfactory job in ’07 as well but it’s unclear whether he has played his last game for the Patriots. There’s a new rookie in town with high hopes in No. 10 pick overall Jerod Mayo, and the Pats signed a veteran from the hated Jets, Victor Hobson. The personnel is there, but where people will fit in from day 1 remains to be seen.
First we’ll take a look at the outside linebacker position, a spot the Pats rely on heavily for quarterback pressure in their 3-4 scheme. Roosevelt Colvin has moved on, cut by the Patriots and replaced (potentially) by Adalius Thomas. Colvin signed with the Pats from Chicago and looked as though he was ready to break out and be an elite linebacker in the NFL, but injury has slowed him and he never truly panned out the way Bill Belichick had hoped.
Thomas came from Baltimore having played most of his time at the OLB position but played more inside in ’07. Now that the Patriots have loaded up a little on ILB, Thomas should be able to move outside and rush off the edge. His speed, as displayed in last years game against the Chargers where he outran an entire offensive unit for a 60+ yard INT return for six (close representation), gives him an edge over most OT in the league and he should be able to improve on his sack total from ’07, which was 6.5.
The other OLB spot belongs, of course, to Mike Vrabel, who led the team with 12.5 sacks in 2007. His age, 32, may worry some, but he’s as good as it gets as an OLB and with help from the inside, outside and a healthy D-line, he should have another monster year. The other options at OLB include the usual backup Pierre Woods (is he ever going to ‘break out’ as they predict?) and rookie Shawn Crable, who was a rising star out of Michigan when the Patriots snagged him in the third round of the draft.
Inside linebacker is where the question marks lie. How much does Tedy Bruschi have left? How good is Victor Hobson? How fast can Jerod Mayo pick up the system and get some burn? The answers: enough, better than people expect, and about six weeks.
It is evident what Bruschi means to this team and despite him having lost a step he’s still an important part of the defense. He led the team in tackles in ’07 with 92, but total tackles can be a very deceiving statistic. Bruschi had two sacks, two pass deflections and zero interceptions last year and is no longer an every down linebacker. With Junior Seau’s return in question, the Patriots had to make moves to fill in the the gaps in their 3-4.
In steps Victor Hobson, a free agent signing from the New York Jets. Hobson, 28, has played all 16 games for the Jets in the last three seasons and has 11 career sacks and three interceptions. One red flag here is that the Jets let him go for nothing and allowed him to sign for the Patriots. However they seem to be in the middle of rebuilding their defense with the likes of Vernon Gholston, so it’s tough to read anything into that. Hobson is 6’0″ and 252 lbs. which is prototypical size for an ILB. I don’t see him as a long term solution at ILB but at this point I think he’s a better option than bringing back Junior Seau for another go-round.
Then, of course, is Jerod Mayo. I feel he is going to need to have an impact on this team THIS season. In the Bill Belichick era we have not seen defensive rookies play all that much and have never seen a linebacker drafted in the top rounds, or even at all. By taking Mayo with the 10th pick overall, the Pats are putting a lot of faith in the rookie from Tennessee that he can learn a complex system which has stunted the growth of players like Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander.
If Mayo can learn the system, he will get significant time this year. His size and speed are valuable at the ILB position and he would fit in nicely with the veteran leadership around him. All reports are that he is a bright kid and a fast learner, but it will still take time. Look for him to play significant time in the preseason, but I think it won’t be until around Week 6 or 7 of the regular season where we see Mayo on the field in big situations. Barring injury or out-of-this-world play from Bruschi/Hobson, I think Mayo has the tools to be a starting ILB by Week 12.
Linebackers are key in the 3-4 scheme and the Patriots don’t lack depth. What kind of quality we see out of Bruschi, Hobson and Mayo will determine the fate of the interior defense. Watch out for rookie Shawn Crable, I see him making a bigger impact than Alexander or Woods have in their few years in blue.