At the start of the 2005 season, the aging New England Patriots linebacker corps looked like it was on the verge of a major overhaul. Tedy Bruschi suffered a stroke in February and was placed on injured reserve. Ted Johnson retired in July before training camp opened.
Free agents Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were signed to fill the void in the middle. Meanwhile, Mike Vrabel looked like the only sure bet on the outside.
By season's end, Bruschi was back in the middle playing alongside Vrabel and Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin were dominating the pass rush off the edge.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
With all their injury problems in the secondary, the Patriots could not afford a subpar year from their linebackers. As usual, they delivered and were one of the steadiest units on the team.
Mike Vrabel - 2005 Grade: A
First, there is the tangible evidence of how valuable Vrabel was to the defense: a team-leading 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He also caught three touchdowns on offense and returned one of his picks for another. Then there is the immeasurable impact his move to inside linebacker in Week 6 had on the team down the stretch. New England ranked 30th in the NFL at stopping the run during the first six weeks of the season. The improvement to 8th by the end of the year coincided - not coincidentally - with Vrabel's move to the inside. The Patriots will continue to benefit from Vrabel's versatility in 2006. The nine-year veteran is signed through 2009 and comes at a bargain salary of $1.5 million.
Tedy Bruschi - 2005 Grade: A
How can Bruschi's effort this past season be viewed as anything less than outstanding? Even without totaling 61 tackles in eight games, Bruschi's unexpected return in Week 8 from a February stroke was inspiring. Add in the fact that he was almost immediately effective and it was enough to earn him NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. With a full season of conditioning heading into 2006, Bruschi has a good chance at resembling the player that terrorized offenses in 2004 and forced four turnovers in three playoff games. The Patriots have him under contract for the next two years and would be crazy to bet against him bouncing back to full strength.
Rosevelt Colvin - 2005 Grade: A-
New England finally got the returns it had been waiting for when Colvin was signed to a six-year, $25 million contract before the 2003 season. Fully recovered from a hip fracture that kept him out most of 2003 and 2004, Colvin ended up with seven sacks. He was especially good down the stretch, as he notched four straight games with a sack. His game-swaying forced fumble on Randy McMichael in Miami was exemplary of his hustle, as the tight end paid the price for trying to get off the ground and run after a diving catch. Colvin will be 29 at the start of next season, which actually makes him the youngest starting linebacker on the team.
Willie McGinest - 2005 Grade: B+
The 12-year veteran is amidst a late-career renaissance. He had six sacks in the regular season, but recorded an NFL-record 4.5 sacks against the Jaguars in the playoffs. After being hampered by nagging injuries early in his career, McGinest has not missed a game since October of 2003. Though he just turned 34 in December, he seems to have gotten more consistent with age. However, 2006 is a dummy year in his contract and he is due a $3.5 million roster bonus plus another $3.5 million salary. If he wants to finish his career in New England, he will almost certainly need to restructure his contract before this summer.
Monty Beisel - 2005 Grade: C-
Perhaps it wasn't entirely his fault, but Beisel had trouble assimilating into the middle of the Patriots defense after coming in as a free agent from the Chiefs. Unless he made the Pro Bowl, he was not going to make anyone forget about Bruschi or Johnson's absence. But too often he was out of position and unable to make tackles. Nevertheless, he may have some upside next season - he is signed for $700,000 and could benefit from having a year in New England under his belt.
Chad Brown - 2005 Grade: D+
The few times he was on the field, it was difficult to find him. The 13-year veteran probably would have been better suited if he was used exclusively as an outside pass rusher, but the Patriots tried to fit the square peg in the round hole and came up empty. Brown turns 36 in July and is well past his prime. Even though he is signed through 2006 for $800,000, New England could release him for about a quarter of that price.
Age will be the biggest contributing factor in shaping the linebacker position for the Patriots this offseason and likely next offseason as well. At the beginning of the 2006 season, Vrabel will be 31; Bruschi, 33; Colvin, 29; McGinest, 34; Beisel, 28; and Brown, 36. Even back ups Larry Izzo and Don Davis have played for 10 years. Tully Banta-Cain, 25, is the youngest player at the position.
Bill Belichick has shown in the past that he is willing to sacrifice youth at linebacker for players who are savvy and experienced. The starting four certainly has plenty of both. But the Patriots will surely be looking at beyond just 2006 and 2007.
While drafting defensive backs and offensive linemen still appears to be the top priority, the Patriots have been known to select players based on talent as opposed to purely on need.
Outside linebackers Chad Greenway (Iowa) and Bobby Carpenter (Ohio State) and middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland) are a few players that may be around when the Patriots pick in the first round.
Top unrestricted free agents at linebacker include San Francisco's Julian Peterson (27 years old) and Carolina's Will Witherspoon (25). The Patriots would need to do some serious cap restructuring to afford either player.
Dave Fletcher is a longtime contributor to Patriots Insider. An accomplished writer and sports analyst, you can find more of his articles by searching for "Dave Fletcher" in the archives.
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