It was 2007. The Patriots were fresh off a victory against their rivals the Colts and were 9-0 en route to a perfect season. For their mid-season special, Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring the heart of the Patriots. It wasn’t Brady. Or Moss. Or even Belichick.
It was the entire linebacking unit.
Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Roosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, and Junior Seau all branded smiles as they made the cover as a unit. Now they all have one thing in common. None of them are on the team.
Just three years later, the New England Patriots have an entirely new linebacking group that is looking to make a name for themselves. Their faces are not well know, but there is potential in the group. Perhaps they will earn their own way onto the cover of a magazine or two.
The 2010 kickoff is still months away. Changes could be make, trades could happen and the landscape could change drastically. So for the preview, we will currently use the “unofficial” depth chart from Patriots.com.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Tully Banta-Cain
Already a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Patriots, Banta-Cain missed the 2007 perfect season after a stint in San Francisco. Returning to the Patriots last season, Tully became the team’s primary pass rusher, collecting a team and career-high ten sacks. He established himself as a leader on the defensive side of the ball. His only issue could be his durability. Banta-Cain has only started in 20 games over the past three seasons. Still, New England seems to have confidence in him, considering they just signed him to a three-year deal this offseason. Should he produce like he did in 2009, then it will be money well spent.
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Jerod Mayo
A sprained MCL would normally keep a guy down for a while. So when Mayo went down in the season opener, his 2009 season looked grim. However, by Week 5, Jerod was back on the field and in fantastic form. The 2008 defensive rookie of the year had another fantastic year, leading the team with 103 tackles. Even after missing games, Mayo was still a dominate force in the middle and has taken his place as the captain of the linebackers. Should he be healthy for the whole season, a Pro Bowl appearance is not out of the question. Neither is leading the league in tackles.
INSIDE LINEBACKER: Gary Guyton
The biggest surprise from last season was Guyton. When Tedy Bruschi retired, he left a hole. No one expected Guyton to be the one who filled it. Gary’s 2009 campaign was his best to date, being second on the team with 85 tackles. When Mayo went down with an injury, it was Guyton who assumed a leader position with ten tackles in a Week 2 loss to the Jets. His speed was very deceiving and when combined with Mayo, Guyton creates a strong inside tandem.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Derrick Burgess
Did you know that Burgess is the only linebacker in the group to make the Pro Bowl? It happened in 2005 and 2006 while playing in Oakland. That was one of the reasons the Patriots were willing to trade for him before the 2009 season. However, despite playing in all 16 games, Derrick ended the season with only 35 tackles. He was better as a pass rusher, where his five sacks were tied for second best on the team. Hopefully after spending a year in the Bill Belichick system, Burgess will be primed for a strong 2010 season and maybe try to earn his third Pro Bowl berth?
Pierre Woods, Eric Alexander, Tyrone McKenzie, Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunnignham, Shawn Crable…
Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander are the longest tenured members of the linebackers, but they will mainly see time in special teams, with the occasional appearance. Tyrone McKenzie tore his ACL during rookie minicamp last year, so there’s no guarantee the 2009 third round pick will contribute significantly this upcoming season. Despite being listed on the depth chart, Shawn Crable has spent his entire NFL career on the injured reserved list. So that leaves us with this:
Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham
We’ll start with Cunningham since he was drafted first. The second round pick was a sophmore starter at Florida, where he was a constant pass rush pressence. He collected 19.5 sacks while at Florida and was named to the All-SEC his senior year. His ability to be a sack master in the NFL is uncertain, so he will most likely see time with special teams, but working with guys like Burgess and Banta-Cain could help Cunningham contribute in seasons to come, if not sooner.
If there was one person to be excited about, it’s Brandon Spikes. He was a possible first round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, and many were surprsed to see him fall all the way to the 62nd selection. A gifted athlete, Spikes’s problem comes with his attitude. Remember, he was benched for the first half of a game by the Gators this past college season for eye gouging.
He is a former three-time All-SEC player and two time All-American while at Florida, and he is a do-it-all linebacker. He is only the third linebacker since 1996 to return four interceptions for touchdowns in a season, and his six interceptions last year set a school record. He started 39 of 47 games while in college and ended up with 307 tackles, 178 of them solo. He is not a pass rusher, but he can seemingly crowd the middle of the field by himself. Spikes is a freak of an athlete and should he change his attitude, could become a starter within the year.
The linebackers are the most important part of a defense. Part lineman, part secondary, this group of guys will have a lot of ground to cover and it appears they can handle it. Expect strong seasons from Mayo and Banta-Cain again, and after a year in the Belichick system, Burgess could have a fantastic 2010 season. Again though, the guy to keep an eye on is Spikes. Should he become committed to the team and do his job week in, week out, then New England might have the steal of this past draft. The linebackers were the strongest part of the defense last year and it appears that in 2010, they will have that honor again.