In Jerod Mayo's first conversation with reporters after the Patriots selected him 10th overall in April's NFL Draft, he admitted winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year "was a goal of mine."
Today, after a steady and sometimes spectacular rookie season in New England, that goal became a reality.
Mayo, a quick and physical inside linebacker who led the Patriots with 139 tackles, was nearly a unanimous choice as the league's top defensive rookie. The University of Tennessee product received 49 of 50 votes today from a nationwide panel of writers and broadcasters who cover the league. Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers -- who played just seven games before suffering a season-ending injury -- received the other vote.
"Yeah, winning the award was one of my goals coming to the season, one of my personal goals," Mayo said this afternoon during a conference call. "But the team goals -- those came first. We fell short and won 11 games. My main goal was to make it to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. Now we have to look ahead to doing it next year, but itís definitely an honor to get this award."
Mayo, who is the first Patriots defender to win the honor since Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes in 1976, won coach Bill Belichick's confidence early and ended up starting all 16 games.
"It definitely was a surprise [to come in and contribute so much immediately] -- those guys had won 18 games last season," Mayo said. "So, there wasnít too much in my mind to improve on an 18-win team. But the opportunity presented itself to go in and play, [the coaches] had the confidence to put me in the game, and hopefully, I didn't disappoint."
Not in the slightest, said Belichick, who called Mayo "probably as professional as any [rookie] I've ever coached."
"We've asked a lot of [Jerod] and from Day 1 he's really been a well-prepared, very mature player who can do a lot of things: play the running game, play in the passing game, blitz, helps us in the kicking game," Belichick told the Associated Press.
"He's smart, makes a lot of defensive adjustments and calls for us there. He runs well. He's tough. He's a good all-around football player, very mature, very professional."
Mayo led the Patriots in tackles seven times, with five games of at least 10 stops. His best performance came in a 34-31 overtime loss to the Jets when he finished with 23 tackles, 17 solo. That total is the most in a game by a Patriot since 1994.
"[Linebackers] are pretty much in the middle of everything. The inside linebacker on defense makes the calls. I feel like if a defensive player is running around, especially at the linebacker position, he will come into some plays, and that's what happened this year," said Mayo, who is the sixth consecutive linebacker to win the honor. The 49ers' Patrick Willis was last year's recipient.
While Mayo made the transition to the pro game look relatively uncomplicated, he said that wasn't necessarily the case, particularly in terms of learning the Patriots' complex defensive schemes.
"It was really tough to be honest," Mayo said. "There were a lot of hours after practice with Coach [Matt] Patricia, the linebackers coach, and a lot of hours with [Tedy] Bruschi -- I couldnít have done it without those guys, spending extra time with me on and off the field. I'm still not to the point where I'm just out there reacting yet, but I pretty much have the basics of the playbook."
Mayo said multiple times that he considers this a "team award" and added that he was grateful that the team's veterans, particularly Bruschi, were so willing to provide knowledge and advice. Mayo said even after Bruschi was sidelined with a knee injury and missed the final three games, he kept the 13-year veteran's advice at hand, mostly through text messages.
"Coming out of college, I had heard horror stories about coming in as a rookie -- guys really wouldn't help you," Mayo said. "I came into the Patriots organization thinking the worst, that these guys werenít going to help me and they aren't going to want me to play, but it was the exact opposite.
"When I first walked through the door Bruschi was there, [Tom] Brady -- they sat me down and welcomed me. They told me if I needed anything to holler at them and we exchanged numbers. From that day forward the older guys like Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, [Mike] Vrabel, Adalius Thomas -- all of those guys have really taken me under their wing and I tried to learn as much as I can from them, how to be a professional, on and off the field."
Mayo conceded that the long season took its toll at it progressed. "I'm not going to lie -- my body got tired, mentally I got tired" he said, "but I started to re-energize as we anticipated going to the playoffs."
The Patriots, of course, were left out of the postseason despite their 11 victories, leaving Mayo already looking ahead to his second season.
"For the most part, I will be here in Foxborough [this offseason] trying to get better," Mayo said. "It is a nonstop thing for me. Football is my life. I love football. I am going to study this past season, the things I did well and the things I did poorly and try to improve on those things. I feel like there is still a lot of room for me to improve my game. I will meet with the coaches and ask them, 'What can I do to get better?' I'm trying to have a great season next year. Hopefully, make it to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.