Patriots Look To Young LBs

Replacing Mike Vrabel is no easy task, and not one which was expected at the end of last season. Yet that's exactly the position the Patriots find themselves in. With nothing but young players to fill in the gap, them team shows little concern over the perceived weakness.

After joining the team as a free agent in 2001, Mike Vrabel developed into about as main a stay as there was on the New England defense over the last eight seasons, playing in all 16 games in seven of those campaigns while tallying 110 starts. No one did more for or knew more about Bill Belichick's defense than Vrabel.

But the former All-Pro will be bringing his versatile, durable veteran presence to the Kansas City Chiefs defense this fall and his trade departure this spring leaves -- depending on how you look at it -- either a gaping hole or a massive opportunity on the Patriots defense.

Seymour knows replacing Vrable is no easy task.

"Vrabel, he's been one of the smartest players that I've ever been around," Richard Seymour said this offseason. "Not just from an athletic standpoint, but from a mental standpoint of getting guys lined up and calling the defense. That's definitely, in my opinion, going to be a loss for us. But it's an opportunity for other guys to step up and take on that responsibility. Pierre Woods, (Shawn) Crable, some of the outside linebackers. We'll see how things shape up for those guys."

Despite offseason rumors and reports linking the Patriots, at various times, to veteran edge players such as Julius Peppers, Jason Taylor and Derrick Burgess, the team made no major acquisition at the position. Instead, it seems the story at the spot heading into training camp is one of what you see is what you get.

As Seymour alluded to, what you get is a bit of a youth moment. Aside from returning starter Adalius Thomas, the depth chart at outside linebacker includes youngsters Woods, Crable and Vince Redd as well as free-agent veteran returnee Tully Banta-Cain. The unproven young trio - made up of two undrafted players and the 2008 third-round pick Crable - totals three career NFL starts in a combined five seasons, all from Woods last November replacing the injured Thomas before he himself landed on Injured Reserve with a broken jaw.

To put things in perspective, Vrabel essentially saw more time on offense as a part-time tight end in New England than the three youngsters combined have ever seen on defense. Right now they are the ultimate unknown, although all three have the size - 6-feet-5 or taller and 240-pounds or better - to at least appear ready to fill out Vrabel's spot.

"They definitely look good in shorts and t-shirts, I'll say that," Seymour joked of the youngsters. "They definitely pass the test as far as that's concerned."

But there is a lot more to holding down the outside linebacker spot in Belichick's 3-4 front than just looking the part. They must set the edge against the run, put pressure on the quarterback when called upon and at times drop into coverage. That's a formidable trio of obligations for any player, never mind a group of guys as unproven as is currently lined up vying to line up in Vrabel's old spot.

Redd sacks Tampa's Josh Johnson. A sign of things to come from the young LB?
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

"Everybody wants that spot," Redd said simply as he prepared to entire his second season after playing on special teams in five games as an undrafted rookie out of Liberty. "There is a lot that's going to be missed (with Vrabel's departure). It just leaves room for everybody else to step up."

In reality, that's probably going to be what it takes to fill the void - a group effort. No one player has the combination of skills and, for sure, experience that Vrabel brought. But each has his own impressive attributes, that at least according to Seymour, leave reason to be optimistic.

"They're definitely mature guys," Seymour observed. "Crable is definitely one of the fastest guys I've seen off the edge. And Vince Redd is so long, he looks like a basketball player. Two steps and it looks like he's around the corner and around the tackle.

"Pierre, ever since I've been here has been one of the hardest working guys in the weight room, on the field, conditioning and running and just putting in the work. So I definitely think it's his time. It's up to him to really seize the moment."

While the youngsters are aware of the media and fan spotlight focused on the outside linebacker spot since Vrabel's departure, don't expect the players to crumble under the scrutiny or perception that the position could end up the weakness of an otherwise stacked Super Bowl contending squad.

"There is no reaction inside our group," Redd said of such chatter. "We understand. (Linebackers coach Matt Patricia) puts pressure on us every day. So for the outside world or whoever else to say anything, it really doesn't mean anything for us because we get it every day from our coaches. They put it on us all the time saying that we're the quarterback of this defense. Just like the quarterback, we have to step up."

Ironically, the story of the Patriots' season a year ago was indeed about an unknown, unproven quarterback stepping up to replace a proven veteran. Can Woods, Crable and Redd develop and produce as a group replacing Vrabel in the same way Matt Cassel did stepping in for Tom Brady last fall?

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