New England runs a base 3-4 defense, meaning in simplest terms the team needs three down linemen and four linebackers to start each game. At the moment, however, the Patriots only have seven linebackers under contract, with a handful of those players either special teamers or long shots to ever be NFL starters.
Granted, that's as many as they had on their active roster during the playoffs last season, not including outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and inside linebacker Oscar Lua, who were recovering on injured reserve.
But a month ago, both the veteran Colvin, entering his 10th NFL season, and Lua, who just finished his first, were released. And there has been no indication whether Junior Seau will return for a 19th pro season.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explains a play to Oscar Lua at passing camp, May 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
As of the start of New England's offseason strength and conditioning program, the Pats linebackers included Eric Alexander, Tedy Bruschi, Larry Izzo, T.J. Slaughter, Adalius Thomas, Mike Vrabel and Pierre Woods.
With Bruschi re-signing in February to a two-year deal, he'll be back for a 13th season in New England. Izzo, though almost exclusively a special teams player, is also in his 13th year, while the All-Pro Vrabel is in his 12th season. Thomas will turn 31 during training camp and had maybe his best game of the season in the Super Bowl. He played both inside and outside linebacker in his first season in New England, versatility that paired with similar wide-ranging skills for Vrabel gives Bill Belichick some options in trying to put the pieces together.
It's conceivable, although seemingly unlikely at this point, that Colvin could come back under renegotiated terms. And Seau's still-unfulfilled quest for a Super Bowl ring could be a factor in his status.
That leaves four of the current Pats linebackers with little or no experience as full-time contributors in the New England defense. And only Thomas, Bruschi and Vrabel as returning if-aging starters. So, between now and training camp, there needs to be at least a few additions to the depth chart.
The young players on the roster - Alexander and Woods - have yet to develop into defensive options. What little time Alexander and Woods have seen has come in big games. Alexander started and played most of the AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis during the 2006 playoffs, while Woods had a chance to make a game-changing play in the Super Bowl, but couldn't hang on to a Giants fumble deep in New York territory.
On the free-agent market, the team brought in Slaughter less than two weeks after the Super Bowl. A teammate of Thomas in college, he has bounced around the NFL in seven previous seasons and was out of football in '07. The team also played host to Carolina restricted free agent Adam Seward recently, but has yet to ink an offer sheet with the former fifth-round pick out of UNLV.
So while the Patriots have historically not often gone the linebacker route in the draft under Belichick, never on the first day, the team could go in that direction next month given its current circumstances at the position. The team has had individual workouts with a number of prospects at the position including Ohio State's Vernon Gholston, a player whose stock has been rising in the months leading up to the draft. But whether it's a No. 7 overall selection on a guy like Gholston or Southern California outside linebacker Keith Rivers, it's clear the Patriots need to do something on draft weekend to finally add some youth and athleticism to an aging dwindling corps of linebackers.