Opportunity For The Rookies

Willie McGinest was a fixture on the Patriots defense for over a decade, but now he's gone. Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi were fixtures the year before, but they were out of action at the start of the season. The transition from experienced vet to inexperienced newcomer is part of every team's annual adjustment period. Some teams handle the adjustment well, some do not. Transitions are supposed to be easier for veterans, yet the Patriots crop of rookies appear ready and eager for the challenge.

Apparently, college linebackers rarely make a good impression on the Patriots. The team has drafted only five players at that position -- none above the fifth round -- since coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli came on board in 2000.

Despite losing starter Willie McGinest in free agency, the Patriots again waited until Day 2 of this year's draft to address the position. Nevertheless, at the recent rookie minicamp, the Patriots had four intriguing newcomers to eyeball -- sixth-round pick Jeremy Mincey of Florida, and undrafted free agents Pierre Woods (Michigan), Freddie Roach (Alabama) and Corey Mays (Notre Dame).

Mincey and Woods project as outside linebackers, while Roach and Mays will try to carve out niches inside.

Mincey (6-3, 263 pounds) has the best chance of sticking, provided he can make the conversion from college defensive end. A junior-college transfer, he was a two-year starter for the Gators and was an All-SEC second team selection as a senior.

Like many 3-4 teams, the Patriots tend to favor college defensive ends to fill their outside linebacker spots. Few college teams run 3-4 schemes, and the size/speed requirements of the position at the pro level (big enough to tangle with tight ends/fast enough to drop into coverage) eliminate most college linebackers who have played outside in a 4-3 system.

Current Patriots Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Tully Banta-Cain (as well as McGinest, who's now with Cleveland) all played DE in college before switching to linebacker in the pros. Belichick referenced all of them when asked about Mincey's chances.

"Many players that have come before him have done it," Belichick said. "I think we know what to expect and know how to go about trying to make that transition. Some players are able to make it and some aren't."

Mincey said that at Florida he was asked to drop into coverage only "every blue moon," while now with the Patriots "it's like 70 percent of the time." Still, he's confident he can do the job. "It feels different," he said, "... (but) a football player's a football player and I consider myself to be a football player. I'm just going to work hard and get everything together."

Woods (6-5, 249) got some 3-4 experience at Michigan, but he did most of his damage as a pass-rusher with his hand on the ground. Playing up and in space will be an adjustment for him, too. That's probably why Belichick spent a lot of time working with Woods and Mincey one-on-one at the minicamp.

"He's a defensive-minded coach," Woods said of Belichick, "so he comes out there and he wants to coach linebackers. I enjoyed it. You gotta learn from the best. That way you become the best." As for the Patriots' coaching style, Woods said, "Everything is aggressive; everything is fast. You've got to learn on the run. Otherwise you won't be here long."

Roach (6-2, 248) left Alabama as the 10th-leading tackler in the program's history, although slow 40-yard dash times and a torn elbow ligament as a senior conspired to leave him undrafted. "I think physically he has the skills that we feel will be competitive in our scheme at outside linebacker," Belichick said. "He's been a productive player at a high level of competition collegiately."

Mays (6-1, 234) was Notre Dame's second-leading tackler as a senior, playing under former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

Asked why Mays, Roach and Woods had gone undrafted, Belichick said he doesn't waste time worrying about why other teams pass on players. Mays said just getting his foot in the door was good enough. "Well, this is (like) a draft, if you look at the stats," he said. "I think Coach (Belichick) said yesterday that one in 19,000 high school players make it to an NFL camp. It's just nothing but an opportunity to make something out of your life."

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