Opportunity knocks for LB
Chatham ready to answer call
FOXBOROUGH -- Sources familiar with Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin's injury indicated he has sought multiple medical opinions on treatment for his left hip, which coach Bill Belichick acknowledged will likely keep him out beyond Sunday's game against the New York Jets.
And without Colvin, middle linebacker Ted Johnson (broken foot), and Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy (released), the Patriots' defense has been altered significantly since the exhibition season.
But in loss there is also opportunity for some backup players, which can lead to discovery. The ultimate golden nugget -- Tom Brady -- was found after Drew Bledsoe's season-ending injury in September 2001.
That brings us to Chatham.
It is a quaint Cape Cod community, but in regard to the Patriots, the reference is to Matt Chatham, a 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound linebacker from the University of South Dakota who has been around the Patriots for parts of four seasons as a special teams standout. Last week he hustled down the field on punt coverage and managed to knock a loose ball out of bounds at the Eagles' 3, pinning quarterback Donovan McNabb deep in his territory.
Chatham also had a sack last week when he was thrust into action in relief of outside linebackers Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel.
Chatham, the epitomy of a developmental player, was claimed off waivers from the St. Louis Rams Aug. 28, 2000, and has spent the last four seasons on the Patriots' practice squad and active roster. Last season he made 15 special team tackles, second on the team, despite missing the final three games with an injury. He signed a three-year deal in the offseason, even though he probably could have gone to another team, because he was so familiar with the Romeo Crennel-Belichick scheme he felt he had a chance to play some day.
Not long before the final roster cuts, Belichick had some tough decisions to make and there were a number of available candidates at linebacker. When asked about Chatham's expertise, Belichick not only went out of his way to say he was one of the best special teams players on the team, but he said he was among the best in the league.
"I'm not sure that really relates to the defense; it's a separate role and a separate skill," responded Chatham, asked about his special team cover skills. "In one way it shows you're ready to make plays, but when you get the opportunity to get out there and play your position, you have to make the most of it."
At South Dakota, Chatham made 74 tackles and had one interception as a senior after 95 tackles and six interceptions as a junior. He always had some speed and quickness, but NFL talent evaluators considered him a borderline guy and he went undrafted.
"It's frustrating but I've been around long enough to know there's a progression for guys like me in the league," Chatham said. "You don't necessarily walk off the street and become a starting linebacker, particularly if you haven't been drafted. It's not that unusual to see a guy like me with a 10-year career and not start getting in there until Year 5. As a young guy you have to prove yourself 10 times compared to another guys' two or three."
Not that he's complaining. Chatham is happy to be playing in the NFL. He received a $192,000 signing bonus as well as yearly salaries of $450,000, $535,000, and $540,000 with workout bonuses of $5,000 the next two seasons and $6,160 in his third year. That's better than going back to Iowa to work for a living.
He's played weak- and strong-side linebacker, but very limited middle linebacker. Chatham is a former wide receiver and safety at Sioux City (Iowa) High, and he was an all-state baseball player.
The athleticism was in evidence while he was chasing McNabb around in the backfield a few times before he dropped him for a 9-yard loss.
"I knocked him down a few times like that before I got to him," Chatham said. "I said, `It's about time' when I finally got to him."
Chatham heard positive reviews from coaches for his play last Sunday. "When you're called on and you're going to get only a few opportunities . . . you might get 10 chances if you're lucky -- it's a small window so you'd better be productive out there," Chatham said.
At this moment he's not regretting his decision to stay with the Patriots, even though he knew the chances to play defense would be few and far between.
"You know what your role is and then you have to reach the point where you just don't sweat the rest of it," said Chatham. "When I re-signed here in the spring, we had some conversations with other teams. If you want to go chase another job maybe you can go be a starting linebacker in Arizona, or just stick it out here and improve and let the progression play out its course. Prove yourself and work yourself up the ladder.
"That can be frustrating, but once you understand the process you keep working hard. You put it out of your mind. You work on your own confidence and you have to instill their confidence, too, where they know if something happens to Willie or Vrabel there's not going to be a dropoff."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.