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NFL draft

LB 'one of higher-rated we've seen'

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / April 27, 2008

Patriots coach Bill Belichick finally found a linebacker in the draft that was to his liking. Turns out he just had to be in the top 10.

Since Belichick arrived in New England in 2000, he and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli never had drafted a linebacker before the fifth round. Yesterday, they took one in the first round, tapping Jerod Mayo of Tennessee with the 10th overall pick.

That the 6-foot-1-inch Mayo was the first linebacker selected by the Patriots in the first round since Andy Katzenmoyer (No. 28 overall) in 1999 wasn't an accident. Belichick's standards for the position are high - he coached some guy named Lawrence Taylor - and 'backers who can play in Belichick's 3-4 are hard to find. When they're there, they go fast.

But Mayo fit the Bill.

"He's one of the higher-rated linebackers that we've seen in a while," said Belichick. "We haven't been picking at this point in the draft, either.

"I'm glad that we're picking where we were and for the right reasons, but sure, there have been other good players that have come through. Guys the last couple of years, but we were so far away from where they were picked, it really wasn't much of a consideration."

The Patriots started the draft with the No. 7 overall selection via a trade in last year's draft with the San Francisco 49ers. Eager to move down from there, pick up an extra pick, and save some lucre before landing their linebacker, Belichick and Pioli spun another deal, shipping the No. 7 pick (and a fifth-round selection, No. 164) to the New Orleans Saints for the No. 10 pick and the Saints' third-rounder (No. 78 overall).

Belichick lauded Mayo's production and versatility during his three seasons at Tennessee.

A first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection in 2007, Mayo played all three linebacker spots in Tennessee's 4-3 defense during his career. Last year, as a junior, he started 14 games at middle linebacker, moving over from weakside outside linebacker. He registered 140 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, and an interception, which he returned 34 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas. For his career, he finished with 236 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, and an interception.

"He's really played Will [weakside], Mike [middle], and Sam [strongside] linebacker," said Belichick. "Those are all 4-3, off-the-line positions, and in our 3-4 defense we have only two off-the-line positions, but sometimes we adjust the front and he plays in those different spots.

"He's been a very productive player in a top program, in a top conference at a couple of different spots and that includes against the run, against the pass, and on fourth down, and in the kicking game. I don't think there is much more he could have done."

The 22-year-old Mayo was thrilled to be a Patriot. He said he had a feeling New England could be his draft-day destination when he visited Foxborough April 11. Mayo said he just felt a good vibe when he entered Gillette Stadium and was taken with the team's championship mystique.

"I had a great visit when I came down there," said Mayo, who was taking a break from raking leaves with his mother in the yard of his Virginia home when Belichick called to congratulate him. "The coaches and I sat down and talked football for a long time. I felt like we had a great visit and we clicked.

"I'm just excited, man. I can't even explain it."

The Patriots clearly had a need to add depth at linebacker and wanted to get younger and faster in the process. At inside linebacker, the team has Tedy Bruschi, who will turn 35 in June, and a lot of uncertainty.

New England signed Jets linebacker Victor Hobson, who could move inside, as a free agent, to bolster the position, and also have Eric Alexander and T.J. Slaughter there. It's unclear whether 39-year-old Junior Seau, who had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, plans to return for a 19th season.

If Mayo can step in and play inside right away it would allow Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas to remain at outside linebacker.

"I think he'll be a pretty good addition to our football team," Belichick said. "Where exactly that fits, we'll just have to wait and see with all the other players we have and how he does and so forth, but he's got some versatility and played against a very high level of competition in the SEC."

Mayo, who said Tennessee had a 3-4 package, will play anywhere.

"When people hear contribution they think, this guy wants to come in and get Defensive Rookie of the Year and things like that," said Mayo. "That's a goal of mine, but at the same time you can make a contribution on special teams. That's one-third of the game. If I do become a starter, then I want to make a contribution that way. Any part of the game, any aspect of the game they want me to play I feel like I will succeed in."

Mayo, who was Tennessee's defensive signal-caller last year, already showed Belichick he can retain and process information from the Patriots' playbook. The linebacker said that during his visit the team drew defensive plays for him, then wiped them off the board and asked him to re-draw what he had learned.

"They taught me the very basic plays," said Mayo. "I expect it to get a lot more difficult, but at the same time I feel like learning from the great guys they have in that linebacker role, so I'll be able to catch on pretty fast."

The Patriots are hoping that speed is something Mayo will bring to their defense, as they attempt to infuse athleticism and youth.

"We added a good player on defense and added one last year, so hopefully we can continue to get a little bit younger on the defensive side of the ball going forward," said Belichick.

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