PHOTO: New England Patriots' linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (48) sits with teammates Jed Weaver (85) and Lonie Paxton (66) at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005. The Patriots met with the over 1,000 reporters who gathered at the stadium for Media Day prior to Super Bowl XXXIX which will feature the Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)
2 - Filling the Hole at Linebacker
Is there Someone Already on the Roster?
By Patriots Insider Staff
In Part one, we looked at some of the issues concerning the linebacker position. In this part we'll take a look at who's on the roster, and who the team has been looking at in the free agency market.
Tully Banta-Cain will be headed into his third season with most of his experience coming from special teams play. In his two previous seasons Banta-Cain has played in 25 games, with his best performance coming against the Bills when he managed to get to Drew Bledsoe and get credited with 1.5 sacks. He also intercepted JP Losman once the Bills decided to pull Bledsoe; it was Losman's first pass as a pro, and not the best of omens.
Banta-Cain is an outside linebacker and listed behind Mike Vrabel on the depth chart. The team can utilize him as a speed rusher for their complicated blitz schemes. To move him inside may not be the best way to take advantage of Banta-Cain's skills. At 6-2, 250 pounds, Banta-Cain has the size to fill the gap and stop the run better than the two ILB's the Pats have listed currently, Don Davis (6-1, 235) or Larry Izzo (5-10, 228).
Dan Klecko is an option. He's another defensive lineman working on the conversion to linebacker. Both Banta-Cain and Klecko were injured in their rookie season, delaying their development and limiting their opportunity to learn the position. Klecko has talked about how Bruschi was helping him understand the position and how to better recognize the plays before he (Klecko) was sidelined during the season with a knee injury.
In a recent interview with Michael Felger of the Boston Herald, Klecko commented on the process of his conversion from defensive lineman to linebacker. ``It's not the quickness so much as it is learning the coverages and getting used to that part of the game,'' Klecko said. ``That's the biggest thing for me. I think I'll have the speed to get there. It's just a matter of knowing where to go.''
That learning curve indicates Klecko still has a fair amount of development to do before he could be considered "effective" at the position of inside backer. Insider reports indicate the Patriots may be looking to relieve Klecko of his Fullback duties in 2005. Indications are, they're looking at a true fullback either in the draft, or after as an Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA).
That might also mean that the Richard Seymour's days as a lead blocker for Corey Dillon ended with the victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Superbowl.
The Patriots other choices appear limited to less experienced players on the roster.
There's a youth movement on the team with Matt Chatham, Eric Alexander and Grant Steen (currently playing in NFL Europe). However, they are all listed as outside linebackers, and their combined experience in the NFL is 54 out of 96 games, with 76 tackles. Most of that comes from Chatham, either on special teams, or in a reserve role.
Chatham, 6-4, 250, has the size to move inside, and also the quickness. Yet coming off a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of 10 games last season, his durability might be an issue.
The Patriots have been looking at free agents to fill the bill. There are a few recognizable names on the list of those available that included Jamie Sharper, released by the Houston Texans in a cost cutting move. Sharper might be the best of the bunch as unrestricted free agents. Sharper's desire for a big payday would have prevented the Patriots from pursuing his services. It turns out he signed with Seattle for just such a paycheck.
Rated close to Sharper on Scout.com's free agent tracker, is Ronald McKinnon, 31, the Arizona Cardinals former starting middle linebacker and Rob Morris, 30, of the Indianapolis Colts. This is the same Morris who was on the Colts defense, which couldn't stop the Patriots offense in the AFC playoffs two years in a row.
McKinnon was deemed expendable in spite of being the leading tackler for the Cardinals from 1999-2003. The Cards picked up former Seattle Seahawks LB, Orlando Huff to take over for McKinnon. They declined to pursue McKinnon and have moved in another direction.
One step down, are a few more choices, including Kansas City Chiefs middle linebacker Monty Beisel. Beisel, a free agent, was in for a visit with the Patriots last week and agreed to join the team. More on Beisel signing here:
With other names out there being Chris Draft, and Jamie Duncan, Falcons or Jay Foreman, Texans, Beisel, 6-3, 267 appears to be the most qualified in terms of size and ability. Draft and Duncan we're replaced in Atlanta when the Falcons landed free agent prize Edgarton Hartwell, formerly of the Ravens, and signed Ike Reese away from the Eagles.
Draft agreed to visit New England according to the Metro West Daily News. Draft's visit was a clear sign that the Patriots prefer an experienced player to taking a chance on drafting a raw inexperienced college player who needs to develop an awareness of the game.
In recent comments to the AP, Falcons GM Rich McKay said of Draft; "``We said that if we can take any position, it would be a 'mike' linebacker. As much Chris did for us last year, we were looking to get a much better player at the position. "
Draft and the Patriots did not reach an agreement and the 5-11 linebacker took his services to Carolina where he will play for coach Fox rather than coach Belichick. The team still needs to fill the hole at linebacker should Bruschi not return.
In comments by Belichick during the 2005 NFL Draft coverage on ESPN, he gave no additional insight into the veteran's condition. Belichick deferred all comments about the linebacker's health to Bruschi letting TV host Chris Berman know that line of questioning wasn't going to reveal any new information.
By not drafting a linebacker on day one of the 2005 NFL Draft, it appears the team may be willing to go into the 2005 season with what they have on the roster. Or they may be looking at other free agents such as Chad Brown, recently released by the Seattle Seahawks.
In either case, we'll delve into more on free agent linebackers and the draft in part three of our series.