Linebacker Concerns In New England

The Patriots linebacking corps is in a season of change, again. With the losses of Matt Chatham, Willie McGinest and even Chad Brown, the depth chart has taken on a new look. One player not on a lot of lists is Patriots' fifth-round draft pick from 2005, LB Ryan Claridge. Claridge who has gone through offseason adversity, is anxious to throw his hat in the ring for a starting spot.

Ryan Claridge's rookie season was a washout. His first pro offseason was infinitely worse.

Claridge, a UNLV inside linebacker taken in the fifth round in 2005, hurt his shoulder in training camp last summer and spent the entire year on injured reserve. But that setback was nothing compared to the blow that awaited him in February when his older brother Travis, a former NFL offensive lineman, died at age 27 at home in Las Vegas. The cause of death, according to the coroner's report, was acute pneumonia, complicated by an enlarged heart and painkillers.

In a recent get-together with the New England media, Claridge politely declined to discuss his brother's death, saying the emotions were still too raw. But he told the Las Vegas Review Journal that losing Travis -- a 1999 second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons who had played in the CFL in 2005 -- was devastating.

"I've felt the deepest pain anybody can feel," Claridge said. "I can't get any lower than I've been ... I have a lot of (emotional baggage), a lot of carry-on bags, and they'll be with me the rest of my life."

Claridge said his main goal heading into his second season is just "staying busy." After a year without football, he said he's anxious to get back into the mix with the Patriots. "I'm just looking forward to going out and being a part of the team again," he said. "That's the thing I miss most."

Claridge (6-2, 254 pounds) is the highest-drafted linebacker of the Bill Belichick Era in New England. When he came on board last year the Patriots had a vacancy inside with Tedy Bruschi planning to sit out the season following a stroke and Ted Johnson abruptly retiring on the eve of training camp. Although Bruschi surprised everyone by returning at midseason, the Patriots suffered another big loss this spring when veteran outside linebacker Willie McGinest defected to the Browns in free agency.

If the Patriots want to put Mike Vrabel back outside, they again would have a spot open next to Bruschi. Although veteran Monty Beisel likely would get first crack at it, Claridge also figures to be in the running.

Unlike most college linebackers, Claridge has experience in a 3-4 defense, although he said comparing UNLV's scheme to the Patriots' is a case of "apples and oranges."

"I'm just trying to learn a new system, and it's taking a lot of time," Claridge said. "There's a lot of stuff to it. But it boils down to playing football. In the end, you have to react."

Notes: The Patriots traded wide receiver Bethel Johnson to the Saints for defensive lineman Johnathan Sullivan. Both players chosen in the 2003 NFL Draft have been disappointments for the the clubs that drafted them. Johnson, a second-round pick of the Patriots, has struggled with attitude and technique. Sullivan, a first-round selection of the Saints, has battled motivation and weight issues. Both teams are hopeful that a change in scenery will do the players good. ... The Patriots signed free agent offensive lineman Jon Doty to a deal. Doty, an undrafted former Kansas State product, was part of the line that helped Darren Sproles break the school's record for rushing yards in a season. He joins the Patriots as an NFL Europe / Injured list exemption meaning he does not count as a roster spot until the final round of cuts when teams must reduce their rosters to 53. The Ty Law rumor mill continues in full swing. The latest rumblings this week involved the revelation that the Arizona Cardinals may be in the mix. Confirmation of the report clarifies the Cardinals interest as speculative. Furthermore, it was Law's agent who contacted Arizona first.

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