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All the right moves

Versatile Vrabel has been mainstay

Durable and dependable, Mike Vrabel enters his seventh season as a Patriot. Durable and dependable, Mike Vrabel enters his seventh season as a Patriot. (BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- Mike Vrabel was the last player on the practice field, but he had company. After a recent training camp session, Vrabel was joined by his sons, Tyler and Carter, who were drop-kicking footballs through the goal posts. It was a glimpse into the possible post-football existence of the Patriots linebacker.

It might not seem like it, but this is Vrabel's 11th season in the NFL and seventh in New England. The consummate Patriot, Vrabel, 32, has been so durable, adaptable, and accountable it's easy to take his accomplishments for granted. Like a car tire, he's just there and you don't fully appreciate him until he's not.

Vrabel's contract runs through 2009 and he is still playing at a high level -- last year he had his second straight 100-plus tackle season -- but it's no longer automatic he'll show up at Patriots training camp every year.

"I think you have to look at what the team wants to do and what the player wants to do and how he feels physically," said Vrabel. "I think to say, 'Well, I'm going to try to play so many more years,' I don't think guys do that. Guys like Rodney [Harrison] and Junior [Seau], they don't do that. They prepare for each year and go at it."

Vrabel does not have imminent plans to abscond to Columbus, Ohio, where he spends the offseason. His focus is on football and the upcoming season, but he's too smart not to realize he's at a point in his career where the future is measured in games, not years.

Since joining the Patriots in 2001, Vrabel has played in 16 games every season but one -- in 2003, he missed three games with a broken right arm. But how many more shots can he take, like the one he took last year, when he was kneed in the back of the head after making the game-sealing interception in a 28-21 win over the Detroit Lions? "Hmm . . . probably a few more," said Vrabel, sardonically.

"I plan to play as long as I can physically play," he said.

Vrabel has been more indispensable than a Swiss Army knife. Because of injuries or the ineffectiveness of others, he has been switched to inside linebacker during each of the last two seasons, and since 2002 he has been used in goal-line situations as a tight end on offense, catching eight passes, all for touchdowns. But the Patriots have determined the best way to utilize Vrabel, at least defensively, is at outside linebacker.

When the Patriots delved deep into their bank account to sign linebacker Adalius Thomas, many assumed Vrabel, who started the final five games last season and two of three playoff games inside after Seau broke his arm, would move inside next to his pal, Tedy Bruschi. Instead, Thomas has switched inside and the Patriots have made a commitment to keep Vrabel outside, his natural position.

As an outside linebacker, Vrabel has been a productive pass rusher -- his 9 1/2 sacks in 2003 are the most of any player during the Bill Belichick era -- and a reliable run-stuffer, setting the edge in the team's 3-4 scheme. With Vrabel inside, the Patriots allowed more than 100 yards on the ground in each of the last four regular-season games.

Belichick said Vrabel's versatility on defense has been very valuable, but he's just as valuable on the outside.

"Mike does a good job at the position that he primarily plays in, too," said Belichick. "So, it's not like he's just a utility infielder. I think he actually plays his position very well when he just has to play the one spot, not that he has one spot."

Vrabel said it doesn't matter where he plays.

"That could change next week," he said. "We try to learn things day to day and what we're doing each day and go out there and practice, and if that's playing outside, that's playing outside, and if it's playing inside I'm sure that will be told and communicated to the players."

Unlike Thomas's big splash, the signing of Vrabel, who didn't start in four seasons for the Steelers, barely registered. But it's been a win-win for both sides to the tune of three Super Bowl titles.

"I've been very happy with the six, going on seven years that I've had here," said Vrabel. "I probably could have gone a different direction if I hadn't signed here in 2001. So, I'm fortunate of my time here and try to make the most of it every year, wherever I'm playing or whatever I'm doing. We try to make the best of it and win games."

"Vrabel is obviously one of the mainstays of this defense," said Seau. "He and Bruschi, Rodney, Rosey [Colvin], and [Richard] Seymour, these guys have really helped build what we're doing today and to have them as our nucleus and to keep them intact is a big key to our defense."

As for retirement, Vrabel has an interest in coaching. The son of a football coach, Vrabel has had limited discussions with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel about returning to his alma mater. Vrabel runs a football camp in Columbus with former Buckeyes teammates Ryan Miller and Luke Fickell as part of the Second and Seven Foundation, which the trio started to promote literacy throughout Central Ohio.

"Coaching 10-year-olds is a little different than coaching at the college level, but certainly we'll take a look at all the options when I do decide to retire," said Vrabel, who said he wouldn't move from Columbus to pursue a coaching job.

But Vrabel has more immediate concerns, like the Panthers, whom the Patriots (0-2) play tonight in their third exhibition game.

"The most important thing for what we're doing is we're trying to win," said Vrabel. "We need to do that [tonight]. We need to feel what it's like to win a game, regardless of if it's preseason or regular season. This football team needs to win a game."

Winning will extend any career.

"When you're winning, things go fast and weeks go by fast and time goes by pretty fast," said Vrabel. "When you lose, things slow down and practices are longer and the days are longer and the weeks are longer. The time I've spent here has gone by fairly quickly and that's partly due to our success."

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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