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Patriots by position: Linebackers

01.27.10 at 11:06 pm ET
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Over the next couple of weeks, as the Patriots offseason gets underway, we’ll present a snapshot of the team by position. Last week, we featured the offense. This week, it’s the defense. We started with the defensive backs on Wednesday, and today, we put the linebackers in the spotlight:

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Tully Banta-Cain finished with a career-high 10 sacks. (AP)

On the roster: Eric Alexander, Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, Thomas Williams. (Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie are on injured reserve, while Bruce Davis is on the practice squad.)

Stat standouts: Leading tackler (according to coaches film review): Mayo, 114; Guyton, 91. Sacks: Banta-Cain, 10; Burgess, 5; Thomas, 3. Best single game (tie): Banta-Cain, 5 tackles, 3 sacks for 22 yards on Dec. 20, 2009 at Buffalo; Mayo, 16 tackles on Nov. 8, 2009 vs. Miami.

2009, in three sentences: Disappointing. Always the centerpiece of any Bill Belichick-coached defense, the 2009 Patriots linebackers were almost completely underwhelming. With the exception of Banta-Cain and occasionally Burgess, there was virtually no pass rush from the outside, and when it came to stopping dynamic running backs in key situations inside (Ray Rice), their performance was lacking.

By the numbers (tie, both courtesy of Gary from Chapel Hill): 10: Banta-Cain had 10 sacks in 2009, becoming just the second Patriots linebacker in double-figures since 1995. (Mike Vrabel had 12.5 in 2007.) Six of those sacks came in the fourth quarter. The only New England linebacker with more since they began tracking the stat in 1991 was Chris Slade, who had seven fourth-quarter sacks in 1994. Zero: Patriots linebackers did not record an interception in 2009. Oakland was the only other team without such an interception this season. It was the first year that New England linebackers have been shut out since 2000. In fact, they’ve now recorded just one pick in the last two seasons combined (tied with Dallas and Denver for the NFL low in that span), after getting 33 from 2001 through 2007. Only Indy (41) and San Diego (35) had more during those seasons. Note that 11 of the 33 interceptions by New England linebackers from 2000 through 2007 were by Tedy Bruschi.

Money quote: “No, that’s one thing about Mother Nature. You can’t control that. You can’t run people over getting to work … I didn’t try to be late. That’s basically it. I don’t know anything else to say. Cars sitting in the road, you’re sitting there. What can you do? It’s not the Jetsons. I can’t jump up into the sky. What the hell am I supposed to do?” —Thomas, explaining why a snowstorm made him late for an 8 a.m. team meeting at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 9. Belichick sent Thomas — as well as Burgess, Guyton and Randy Moss — home for being late that morning.

The skinny: There were figures to be some turnover at the linebacker position, starting with Thomas, Burgess and Seau. Thomas is virtually a guaranteed lock not to return, while Burgess is a free agent who likely won’t be a priority for the Patriots and Seau has already said he will retire. Banta-Cain, who was clearly the player who benefited the most from the trade of Vrabel, is a free agent who will be a priority for the Patriots in the offseason. In addition, Woods is a free agent who could return if the price is right, while Ninkovich is in the fold through 2011.

Inside, Mayo — the 2008 Associated Press defensive rookie of the year — suffered an early-season knee injury. Perhaps as a result, he appeared to take a step back in his second season, but is still one of the better young linebackers in the league. Mayo and Guyton played the majority of snaps inside, and are both signed to deals past 2010.

Two younger faces who could play a role at LB in 2010 are Crable on the outside and McKenzie inside, the latter of whom the organization is particularly enthused about. The duo spent all of 2009 on the sidelines because of injury, but both could provide some quality depth at the position in 2010.

Read More: Adalius Thomas, bruce davis, Derrick Burgess, Eric Alexander
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