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Vrabel traded in a stunner

Patriots deal linebacker to Chiefs on Day 1 of free agency

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / February 28, 2009
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For the last eight seasons, Mike Vrabel has imbued the Patriots with selfless versatility and veteran savvy. Now the consummate Patriot will be expected to provide those characteristics for another team.

Vrabel confirmed yesterday that the Patriots traded him in his typical, straight-to-the-point style, responding to an e-mail asking whether he had been swapped to the Kansas City Chiefs with a one-word answer: "Yes."

In Kansas City, he'll be reunited with former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, who is the Chiefs' new general manager and charged with helping redefine the culture of the team the same way he did when he joined the Patriots. Terms of the deal were not released, but ESPN's John Clayton reported Vrabel was dealt for an undisclosed draft choice.

In eight seasons with the Patriots, Vrabel played in 125 regular-season games. He recorded 638 regular-season tackles and 48 sacks and intercepted 10 passes. In 17 playoff games, including four Super Bowls, he tallied 93 tackles and seven sacks.

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But Vrabel's contribution can't be measured in numbers. He was the quintessential Patriot, the embodiment of the tough, smart, disciplined, and versatile football player coach Bill Belichick and Pioli used as their blueprint for building the team into the NFL's model franchise. He was also one of the more underrated and undervalued pillars of the Patriots' dynasty, helping the franchise to three Super Bowl titles (2001, 2003, and 2004), and earning one Pro Bowl berth, in 2007.

Signed in 2001 as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a backup and special teams player, Vrabel was part of a fleet of low-cost, high-performance free agents who helped take the Patriots from 5-11 in 2000 - Belichick's first season as head coach - to the onset of a dynastic run in 2001, when the franchise won its first Super Bowl.

In Super Bowl XXXVI, Vrabel's hit on St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner caused an errant throw that was intercepted by Ty Law and returned 47 yards for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a surprising 7-0 lead and set the tone for one of the most incredible upsets in NFL history, as the Patriots defeated the heavily favored Rams, 20-17.

Vrabel wasn't just good at harassing passers. He was adept at catching passes. He has 10 career receptions, all having resulted in touchdowns.

In the Patriots' 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vrabel caught a touchdown pass as a goal-line tight end. It was a feat he repeated when the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

In 2005 and 2006, Vrabel moved from his natural 3-4 outside linebacker position to inside linebacker, starting 11 games in 2005 after free agent Monty Beisel turned out to be a bust. Vrabel recorded a career-high 114 tackles that season. He reprised his role in 2006 after Junior Seau broke his forearm in the 11th game of the season.

Vrabel's reward for his sacrifice came in 2007, when the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to go 16-0 and he made the Pro Bowl. Vrabel collected a career-high 12.5 sacks in 2007, the most since Andre Tippett reached that number in 1987, and the most of any Patriots player under Belichick.

Vrabel, who turns 34 in August, finished fifth on the Patriots in tackles last season with 67, according to coaches' calculations, but his sack number dropped to four. He also had an interception.

Not one to make excuses, Vrabel denied rumors he was hampered by a shoulder injury last season, not surprising since the only three games he missed in eight seasons with the Patriots came as the result of a broken right arm in 2003.

Vrabel was entering the last year of his contract and was due $2.2 million in base salary, but he would have counted $4.3 million against the salary cap. It's possible he was traded with an eye toward creating more cap space.

With Vrabel gone, the Patriots will have to find a new starter at outside linebacker opposite Adalius Thomas, who is coming off surgery for a broken right forearm. The contenders are recent returnee Tully Banta-Cain; restricted free agent Pierre Woods; Shawn Crable, who didn't play a down last season as a rookie; Vince Redd, who is entering his second season; Darrell Robertson; and Angelo Craig.

The Patriots could also target an outside linebacker in April's draft.

Somebody will take Vrabel's spot on the field, but they'll be hard pressed to take his place with the Patriots.

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

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