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Position could be stronger

Linebacker is a spot Patriots must address

Lack of depth at linebacker prompted the Patriots to use Eric Alexander -- making his first start -- Sunday against the Colts. Lack of depth at linebacker prompted the Patriots to use Eric Alexander -- making his first start -- Sunday against the Colts. (MICHAEL CONROY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

With a Super Bowl berth on the line, the Patriots considered their defensive options and decided they needed more speed on the field at inside linebacker. So they turned to Eric Alexander in last Sunday's AFC Championship game.

While diehard Patriots fans might have known Alexander from his role as a core special teams player, the casual observer was likely surprised to see him in the lineup. After all, the second-year veteran had never started a game in his 18-game NFL career.

Alexander very well could develop into a solid player, which wouldn't make him the first undrafted free agent to emerge under the tutelage of the Patriots' fine coaching staff. But the fact that he was the top option in such a crucial game illustrates what may be the Patriots' most pressing need this offseason.

More linebackers.

The need is compounded by the fact that of all the Patriots' non-special teams positions, linebacker is the oldest. The heart and soul of the unit, 33-year-old Tedy Bruschi, is still assessing his football future. His valuable sidekick, 31-year-old Mike Vrabel, will enter his 11th NFL season in 2007.

Since coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli teamed up to run the football operation in 2000, the Patriots have drafted just five linebackers: Casey Tisdale (seventh round, 2000), T.J. Turner (seventh round, 2001), Tully Banta-Cain (seventh round, 2003), Ryan Claridge (fifth round, 2005), and Jeremy Mincey (sixth round, 2006).

Only Banta-Cain is still with the team, and he's scheduled for unrestricted free agency.

If the Patriots go for a linebacker early in this year's draft, some of the top prospects are Florida State's Lawrence Timmons, Penn State's Paul Posluszny, Mississippi's Patrick Willis, Michigan's David Harris, Miami's John Beason, and Florida's Earl Everett.

Then there are big-bucks veteran free agents, assuming they don't re-sign with their current teams or are retained via the franchise tag. That group is headlined by the Bears' Lance Briggs and the Ravens' Adalius Thomas, while other notables include the Bills' London Fletcher-Baker and the Colts' Cato June.

Here is one assessment of the Patriots' most pressing needs heading into the offseason, breaking down each spot with the players who are under contract, exclusive rights free agents (can only negotiate with the Patriots), restricted free agents (Patriots can match an offer), and unrestricted free agents.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

Players under contract: Tedy Bruschi (2007).

Exclusive rights free agents: Eric Alexander, Corey Mays.

Unrestricted free agents: Don Davis, Barry Gardner, Larry Izzo, Junior Seau.

Extra point: It's been a challenge to find big, run-plugging college players who fit the traditional 3-4 alignment, but the Patriots' system is flexible enough to insert a smaller, more athletic player and make it work.

CORNERBACK

Players under contract: Chad Scott (2007), Ellis Hobbs (2009).

Exclusive rights free agents: Antwain Spann.

Restricted free agents: Randall Gay.

Unrestricted free agents: Ray Mickens, Asante Samuel.

Extra point: Samuel emerged as the team's top player at the position and is now in position to command big bucks should he hit the open market.

WIDE RECEIVER

Players under contract: Reche Caldwell (2007), Jabar Gaffney (2007), Jonathan Smith (2007), Chad Jackson (2009).

Exclusive rights free agents: Bam Childress, Kelvin Kight, Zuriel Smith.

Unrestricted free agents: Troy Brown.

Extra point: Although Caldwell and Gaffney improved over the course of the regular season, the Patriots still have questions at the position as Jackson, the team's second-round pick in 2006, has yet to emerge.

SAFETY

Players under contract: Artrell Hawkins (2007), Tebucky Jones (2007), Mel Mitchell (2007), Eugene Wilson (2007), Rodney Harrison (2008), James Sanders (2008), Willie Andrews (2009).

Restricted free agents: Rashad Baker.

Exclusive rights free agents: Raymond Ventrone, Gemara Williams.

Extra point: Injuries have hit this position hard in recent years, with opening day starters Wilson and Harrison both looking to return after missing significant chunks of the 2006 season.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

Players under contract: Pierre Woods (2007), Rosevelt Colvin (2008), Mike Vrabel (2009).

Unrestricted free agents: Tully Banta-Cain.

Extra point: Colvin brings a high salary cap number ($6.7 million) into 2007 and might need to restructure that contract, while Woods shows promise for the future. Vrabel, who has also played inside, is a more natural fit on the outside.

TIGHT END

Players under contract: Matt Kranchick (2007), Garrett Mills (2009), David Thomas (2009), Benjamin Watson (2009).

Unrestricted free agents: Daniel Graham.

Extra point: Retaining Graham will be a priority, as his blocking prowess and consistency set him apart from the rest of the group.

RUNNING BACKS

Players under contract: Quadtrine Hill (2007), Corey Dillon (2009), Kevin Faulk (2009), Laurence Maroney (2010).

Unrestricted free agents: Heath Evans, Patrick Pass.

Exclusive rights free agents: Earl Charles.

Extra point: The main question is whether Dillon -- whose salary cap number jumps from $2.6 million to $4.4 million -- returns.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Players under contract: End/nose tackle Santonio Thomas (2007), end Marquise Hill (2008), end Ty Warren (2008), end Jarvis Green (2009), end Richard Seymour (2009), nose tackle Le Kevin Smith (2009), nose tackle Vince Wilfork (2009).

Exclusive rights free agents: End/tackle Mike Wright.

Extra point: An area of strength, with the top five players signed for at least two more seasons.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Players under contract: Center Brian Barthlemes (2007), tackle Sean Bubin (2007), center/guard Russ Hochstein (2008), swing tackle Nick Kaczur (2009), left guard Logan Mankins (2009), right guard Stephen Neal (2009), right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (2009), left tackle Matt Light (2010), center Dan Koppen (2011).

Exclusive rights free agents: Tackle Wesley Britt.

Restricted free agents: Center/guard Billy Yates, center/guard Gene Mruczkowski.

Extra point: Like the defensive line, an area of strength with the starting group signed for at least three more seasons.

SPECIALISTS

Players under contract: Punter Danny Baugher (2007), punter Tom Malone (2007), long snapper Lonie Paxton (2007), punter Josh Miller (2008), kicker Stephen Gostkowski (2009).

Unrestricted free agents: Punters Ken Walter and Todd Sauerbrun.

Extra point: After Sauerbrun's strong showing in the playoffs, he might be brought in to compete with Josh Miller.

QUARTERBACK

Players under contract: Matt Cassel (2008), Tom Brady (2010).

Unrestricted free agents: Vinny Testaverde.

Extra point: Brady is locked up for four more seasons, while Cassel has two more seasons as a top backup.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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