Patriots Camp: Vrabel Thinks Things Will Be OK

Mike Vrabel is the current center of focus for questions about the New England Patriots' defense in 2005. Vrabel has been spending considerable time in the inside backer position with the absence of both Bruschi and Johnson. PI caught up with Vrabel and Rodney Harrison to ask them about the changes on defense.

Vrabel Sees the Bright Side of Patriots' Linebacker Shortage
By John MacKenna

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- To some, the interior of the New England Patriots' defense might look like a disaster area. To LB Mike Vrabel, however, it is the land of opportunity.

Since winning Super Bowl XXXIX less than six months ago, the Patriots have lost all three of the linebackers who manned the two inside slots in the team's 3-4 defense. Roman Phifer was released, Tedy Bruschi suffered a stroke and decided to sit out the 2005 season, and Ted Johnson retired.

The transition couldn't be more abrupt: Bruschi, Phifer and Johnson manned their positions for virtually every play during the team's four-year NFL dynasty. There were no apprentices on hand learning from the masters as their careers wound down. In fact, there is not a single linebacker on this year's roster who has played inside as a Patriot on any kind of regular basis. Veterans Larry Izzo and Don Davis have filled in on rare occasions, but neither of them is working out with the regular defense in the early days of training camp.

In a defense as complex as New England's, this could be a serious problem, but the players don't sound worried. "Yeah, they're gone," said Vrabel of the departed veterans, "but it's a sport about opportunities. We got a lot of guys that have been presented opportunities, and I'm one of those guys."

Nothing is official, but early signs point to Vrabel sliding to the inside from the outside linebacker slot where he has performed magnificently for the last four seasons. During yesterday's practice, Vrabel played almost exclusively inside, and after practice Saturday, he freely acknowledged the switch.

"It's always something new for me," he said. "If you just approach it that you're expected to be ready to go every day, whether that's inside or outside, and just try to learn and get better. I think I'll be fine. It's an adjustment, something different."

Vrabel said he doesn't mind learning a new position. "There's calls and stuff that are different from outside linebacker, but I think as long as I know what to do, and just try to pick up the speed a little bit in there, I'll be OK. It's not as natural as outside linebacker. It's a different run read that I have, and I'm picking those up, and the more I see it, the better it is."

With only two days of training camp in the books, it's too early to predict who will play inside, but moving Vrabel from outside to inside seems like a logical choice, given the team's superior depth at outside linebacker.

In addition to starters Vrabel and Willie McGinest, the Patriots have Rosevelt Colvin, who is fully capable of starting outside. Colvin was a high-profile free agent signing in 2003 after logging 21 sacks in two seasons with the Chicago Bears. He missed most of the 2003 season after fracturing his hip in Week 2, but he played his way back in 2004 and is poised for a great 2005 season.

Also available to play outside are Matt Chatham, who is in his sixth year with the Patriots, and Tully Banta-Cain, who is in his third year here.

Aside from Vrabel, the leading candidates to start inside are Monty Beisel and Chad Brown, whom the Patriots signed as free agents this offseason from the Kansas City Chiefs and the Seattle Seahawks, respectively.

There are optimists who see Beisel as another Vrabel -- an unknown who came into his own after moving to New England. Like Vrabel, Beisel joins the Patriots with an opportunity to start after seeing only limited playing time in his first four seasons with another team.

It remains to be seen how far the similarities will extend. Meanwhile, the Beisel Watch has been put on hold, as he has missed the last three practices after "tightening up," as the team put it.

At 238 pounds, Beisel is slightly smaller than other Patriots' inside linebackers. Bruschi played at 247 pounds, Phifer at 248 and Johnson at 253.

Brown, who weighs 245, also is expected to play inside, and he has seen a lot of reps there in the early days of training camp, where he has played with the first unit beside Beisel while he was healthy and then next to Vrabel, who weighs 261.

One player who appears to be out of the mix is Dan Klecko. After trying to develop Klecko as a linebacker in last year's camp, the team this year is deploying him exclusively on the defensive line.

The situation isn't bothering Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison. "Nothing is guaranteed in the National Football league," Harrison said," so anytime you have change you just have to deal with it. It's always a challenge, even if you had those guys here, there's no guarantee that they're going to make it through the whole, entire season with injuries and everything that can happen. So every day is a challenge in the National Football league. It's going to be tough, but you got to deal with it. These are the cards that you are dealt."

The Patriots also are without former Pro Bowl CB TY Law, who was released in the offseason for salary cap reasons, and Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel, who left to coach the Cleveland Browns. Former Defensive Backs Coach Eric Mangini has replaced Crennel.

Also missing for now is Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour, who is staying away from training camp in a contract dispute. In Law, Seymour and the three inside linebackers who have left, the team is missing five key players who each have three Super Bowl rings.

"The things that are happening here, nothing really shocks me," said Harrison. "This is probably the most change that we've ever had here. What can you do, man? You got to keep stroking. I mean, you lose two key guys on the inside, three guys, great players… Tedy's coming off his first Pro Bowl, Ted Johnson came off a great year, and you lose those two guys, I mean it hurts. And you have Richard not in camp so you know if you let it serve as a distraction… it can't be a distraction."

Harrison said the change in coordinators has not been a problem. "Eric's done a great job, and I tell you, we're right on page," Harrison said. "We miss Romeo, but the communication is good. … It's been a great transition, a lot smoother probably than what most people would anticipate."


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