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Old boy network in place

At LB, Patriots prefer experience

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 29, 2007

It was Bill Belichick's third season as coach of the Cleveland Browns, in 1993, and Clay Matthews remembers one distinguishing trait among his fellow starting linebackers. If the NFL were a golf course, they were all on the back nine.

Matthews was in his 16th and final season with the Browns. Counting his time in the United States Football League, Mike Johnson also had double-digit years of pro experience. And then there was the free agent signee Pepper Johnson, who was in his eighth season.

In Matthews's view, Belichick put a high value on experience among his linebackers. It was something about the responsibilities of the linebackers in the detailed system that seemed to lend itself more to gray-haired veterans than hotshot rookies.

That appears to still be the case with Belichick and the Patriots.

In the wake of 30-year-old outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin (foot) landing on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, the Patriots could have turned exclusively to the youth on their roster in the form of backups Eric Alexander (third year) and Pierre Woods (second year), picking one to add to the five-man rotation that had been established.

Instead, they moved quickly to sign 37-year-old Chad Brown, with Belichick noting that Brown gives the Patriots "a level of depth and experience" that they are "fortunate to be able to have at this time of year."

To Matthews, the idea of turning to a veteran is consistent with what he experienced under Belichick, who often stresses the concept of team defense, with the linebackers the glue holding it together. Because of that, Matthews believes Belichick generally wants players who know some tricks of the trade.

"It's the type of situation where you might look at the individual parts and see some older guys who are not necessarily the fastest, but because of their experience they are less likely to make mistakes and are efficient at what they do," Matthews said. "You put all that together and the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts."

The Patriots have nicely filled holes on their roster in recent years, and are seldom shy about turning to youth when they feel a player is ready. Yet if there is one position where that hasn't been the case, it is linebacker.

Part of the reason is that the Patriots have drafted few of them.

In the eight seasons in which Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli have run the Patriots' football operation, seven linebackers have been selected by the team. One was in the fifth round, two in the sixth round, and four in the seventh round. Only one, 2007 seventh-rounder Oscar Lua, is still with the club (injured reserve). The biggest hit was 2003 seventh-rounder Tully Banta-Cain, who signed with the 49ers as a free agent last offseason.

Part of the reason for the lack of linebacker selections is that in the Patriots' 3-4 system, the outside 'backers are usually college defensive ends, making for a challenging projection for scouts.

Belichick also recently explained that another challenge in identifying linebackers, specifically inside linebackers, is determining how they will adjust to the pro passing game.

"It is a lot more sophisticated as it relates, especially, to the linebacker position," he said. "A player that can excel in the passing game at this level has a lot of value. I'm not sure in the college game there's as much of that. College is a lot more downfield throws, tear screens, plays to the perimeter. They don't have as many inside combinations like you see in a dropback passing game in the NFL."

So perhaps that explains why the Patriots have leaned more heavily on veterans at linebacker, as players such as Alexander and Woods - former undrafted free agents - continue to transition to the NFL game.

The linebacker position was a hot topic yesterday at Gillette Stadium, with players questioned on how the Patriots will adjust following the loss of Colvin.

Adalius Thomas, who moved outside to replace Colvin last Sunday night, said it "depends on what Coach sees fit." Brown said he's happy to be back and will do whatever is asked of him. Alexander said he'll be prepared for whatever opportunity comes his way. Woods referred all questions to Belichick.

Asked about the situation, Belichick said: "We certainly didn't want to lose Rosie, but that's where we're at so we'll just move on with what we have. Whatever we feel like is the best thing to do, we'll use those combinations of people."

Reflecting on his three years playing under Belichick in Cleveland, Matthews remembers those combinations being filled mostly with veteran players. He's not surprised the current Patriots have a similar look.

"A lot of it is not only understanding what you have to do, but what all your teammates have to do," he said. "That can be a lot harder for a younger player to grasp."

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

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