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Thomas rearming in offseason

Linebacker in position to be a Patriot leader

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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FOXBOROUGH - When the Patriots open the 2009 season, their best outside linebacker might go by the name of Julius Peppers, but yesterday, when the team opened its offseason conditioning program, Peppers was still a Carolina Panther and the Patriots' premier outside linebacker was still named Adalius Thomas.

Somewhere in all the angst about trading outside linebacker Mike Vrabel and the excitement about potentially putting a premium pass-rusher like Peppers in a New England uniform, Thomas, who two years ago got the biggest free agent contract of the Bill Belichick Era (five years, $35 million, $20 million guaranteed), became an afterthought.

It's easy to overlook Thomas because he ended last year on injured reserve because of a broken right forearm that forced him to miss the season's final seven games.

However, one look at the Patriots depth chart, and Thomas's importance is obvious. He is the most versatile and most accomplished 3-4 outside linebacker on the roster. That wouldn't change with the arrival of Peppers, who despite his four Pro Bowls and stated preference to move out of Carolina and into a 3-4 attack, has been nothing but a 4-3 defensive end since Carolina made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft.

Thomas, 31, who despite playing only nine games still finished second on the team with five sacks last year, said much of his offseason has been focused on returning the forearm to form.

"I'm still doing all I can to just get better and come back full strength when it's time to come back," said Thomas, who suffered the injury in a 20-10 win over the Buffalo Bills Nov. 9 and had surgery three days later.

He said the forearm is not at full strength yet, but he didn't want to play the percentage game.

"It's kind of hard to tell," Thomas said. "The goal is September. Right now, you're not really trying to see the maximum that you can put on it or anything like that. But I feel good about the progress that it's making."

The Patriots put Thomas on injured reserve Dec. 5, waiting nearly a month after his injury to end his season. There was a school of thought that Thomas could have returned if the Patriots had not been shut out of the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

But he said, "I don't think so. I don't really think so. You would think you could have, but now with the time, it's March now, and even now there are some of those things that you still have limitations on. So, I don't think it was realistic to be able to come back."

With Vrabel not coming back, Thomas knows that his role will change. Even though he has only two seasons of experience with the Patriots, he will be counted on to be more of a leader for the younger linebacker corps, which could get even more callow via next month's NFL draft.

He might also be counted on to inherit some of the responsibilities that Vrabel had at outside linebacker. That could mean lining up more over the tight end for Thomas or being asked to drop into coverage more.

Thomas said it's strange to look around the locker room and not see Vrabel, who was shipped to Kansas City along with quarterback Matt Cassel for the Chiefs' second-round pick (No. 34 overall), a pick that, according to NFL.com, the Patriots are prepared to use to coax Carolina to part with Peppers.

"I still can't really get a grasp on it, and his locker is right next to mine, so you grow to know a guy in the two years that you're here," Thomas said. "I just have to step up and kind of take over where he left off.

"He definitely set a great example for the young guys, and me and Tedy [Bruschi] will try to step in and fill his role, and [Rosevelt Colvin's] and [Junior Seau's] role and [Larry] Izzo's. A lot of guys are lost. We're a lot younger in the linebacking corps right now. It will be exciting to go in and teach the young guys."

One can wonder if Thomas had produced at the level anticipated when the Patriots signed him in 2007, if they still would feel the need to pursue Peppers. In the final three of his seven seasons in Baltimore, Thomas accumulated 28 sacks, including a career-high 11 in 2006. The 28 sacks were the most in the NFL by a linebacker during the 2004-06 period.

In two seasons as a Patriot, Thomas has 11.5 sacks.

But to blame Thomas is to oversimplify his circumstances. In 2007, the Patriots started out using Thomas as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense and even last year at times he moved inside in the nickel packages. Then his 2008 season was truncated by the forearm injury.

Still, with a $6.4 million cap charge this season and a hefty $9.4 million one in 2010, Thomas could, like Vrabel, fall victim to the business side of the game at some point. That's the NFL. One day you're regarded as your team's best outside linebacker and the next you're considered a salary cap liability.

"I don't worry about things I can't control," said Thomas. "Whatever they see fit, that's what they'll do - whatever is best for them.

"Just like when I came here, I figured it was best for me. So they'll decide that, and whenever they decide that, I'll just have to deal with it. It's business. It's nothing personal or anything."

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