Man In The Middle: Can the rookie play?

There has been plenty of talk about Jerod Mayo since the Patriots decided to select him in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. What is it about this player that excites the team?

Finally! That was the general immediate reaction to the Patriots' selection of Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo with 10th overall pick on draft weekend. After years of Patriots Nation lusting after a young, athletic, playmaker at linebacker, New England finally found a guy worthy of picking earlier than the fifth round of the NFL Draft.

The wait is over. Maybe the thing that's most intriguing about Mayo's future prospects in New England is the very fact that the team actually drafted him. There have been other guys onlookers thought might have made good fits in the Patriots' 3-4 (David Harris, a productive rookie with the Jets last fall, is just one example), but never once did the team go in that direction early on in this regime's previous eight drafts.

Now, to not only get a linebacker on the first day and in the first round, but a guy that defensive minded head coach Bill Belichick has deemed worthy of the No. 10 pick? That simply has to inspire excitement, expectations and intrigue.

Jerod Mayo at minicamp (Getty images)

Keep in mind Belichick's track record with first-round picks over the years is as impressive as anyone's. From All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour to Pro Bowlers like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, offensive guard Logan Mankins and contributing starters like running back Laurence Maroney and tight ends Benjamin Watson and Daniel Graham, Belichick's top-round choices generally prove to be true Grade A beef.

Mayo is the next prime cut, coming at a position at which the Belichick and the Patriots clearly have very high standards. For a prospect to meet those standards, something many draft observers had given up on after years erroneous draft predictions, is a tremendous sign of faith from a Hall of Fame defensive mind to talented newcomer. Former Patriots linebacker coach and current Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said at the NFL Scouting Combine that for New England to take an inside linebacker early in the draft, "You'd have to have Einstein right there, but a tough Einstein."

By most accounts, that's pretty much what Mayo is. Belichick has raved about his versatility, intelligence, physical skills and the production he put up against top-notch SEC opposition. Then, the guy who has seen some pretty good linebackers in his days with the Giants and Patriots, and who certainly would seem to qualify as an expert witness when it comes to the position, went on to call Mayo "one of the better linebackers we have seen in awhile."

Again, could a New England fan get any more intrigued with what this guy is going to bring to the defense at what was clearly New England's biggest need heading into draft weekend?

"We certainly wanted to get younger and faster on defense, but I have been saying that for six years. This has been really since the 2001 season," Belichick said on draft weekend, shortly after joking about a draft that didn't included any offensive linemen, defensive linemen or tight ends -- New England draft staples over the years.

As Belichick himself alluded, it has been a long wait to see the Patriots get younger and faster at linebacker. Will Mayo be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, an award that has gone to inside linebackers Patrick Willis (49ers) and DeMeco Ryans (Texans) the past two seasons? Maybe not. Will he be a Pro Bowler like Willis? Doubtful. Regardless, the Patriots actually have a highly-rated, intriguing young prospect at linebacker worth watching this summer as he works his way into his new team's scheme throughout training camp, the preseason and the fall.

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