logoby Dan Snapp

The New England Patriots may be the first 18-1 rebuilding team in league history.

OK, not rebuilding in the traditional sense. They’re still Super Bowl favorites after all, even after the shocking loss to the Giants.

No, the Pats will be rebuilding their egos, their pride, hopefully rebuilding their reputation (“Never!” sez the collective punditry). On a happier note, they’ll also be rebuilding their linebacker corps.

We’ve heard the refrain so often it’s become a mantra bouncing around our skulls: the Patriots don’t draft linebackers high; their scheme is too complex for young players; only vets start at LB.

That theorem will be put to the test this season, as the team drafted not one but two linebackers high in the draft, and one may even start. The defense’s premier position is undergoing a youth movement, and it will be the position to watch when Patriots training camp starts today.

Camp is rife with many compelling stories (How will the secondary fare absent Asante? Will the line suffer Super Bowl aftershocks? What calamities can Capers conjure? And will Chad Jackson break out or bust out?), but the new order at linebacker – like last year’s onslaught of new receivers – is the Big Change, the biggest departure from Patriots standard operating procedure.

Patriots starting linebacker was one of the country’s most exclusive clubs: no one under 30 allowed. A couple under-aged kids (Monty Beisel and Eric Alexander) snuck into the club briefly, but were quickly bounced. At center stage were the most grizzled of veterans: Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, the ageless Junior Seau, Adalius Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin; before them, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson and the medical wonder that was Roman Phifer.

However, the position also demanded a delicate balancing act be performed: gain experience, but lose speed; gain mental precision, but lose explosion; gain confidence, lose steps.

So long as Coach Bill Belichick could replenish the field with prize free agents (Colvin at 28, Thomas at 30), under-utilized stars in the making (Vrabel at 27) or old vets with some legs left (Phifer at 33, Seau at 37), draft-day decisions could be focused elsewhere.

But when supposed diamonds in the rough (Beisel again) flamed out, and when new vets were just old (Chad Brown), Belichick had to place more on the old vets – more reps, more minutes, more hits – and then hope he had a couple more years before the law of diminishing returns came to call. After all, unlike Brett Favre’s ego, Tedy Bruschi can’t go on forever.

So with linebackers the key to New England’s 3-4 defense, a scheme so Labyrinthine only the wiliest of vets can ably navigate it, surely a rookie’s head will swim – no matter his pedigree – trying to absorb the idiosyncrasies, let alone apply them in real time.

Still, Belichick invested a first and third round pick, respectively, in Jerod Mayo and Shawn Crable, and signed relative youngster Victor Hobson (from the fellow 3-4 defense of the New York Jets) to compete for a starting job at inside linebacker.

It’s the boon for which many have prayed for years. Watching highly acclaimed LBs make it to the Pats draft pick and then slip on past was particularly painful. There should have been some bylaw in place, for instance, mandating the Patriots draft Mosi Tatupu’s kid. But had they done that, we’d never have seen the monster that is Logan Mankins. Such are the tradeoffs of the draft.

So now what can we expect of the young LBs? Hobson’s got the 3-4 experience and physique, but didn’t play inside in New York and lacks speed. Still, he’s favored to start next to Bruschi inside.

Unlike a lot of rookies projected to play linebacker in the 3-4, Mayo and Crable were both college linebackers, and so won’t experience quite the growing pains college defensive ends face in the transition.

Crable’s an amazing physical specimen (I hope everyone’s seen the hurdle picture) who needs to develop pass coverage skills and gain some bulk.

Mayo is the wildcard who will really put the old linebacker philosophy to the test. He’s athletic, productive, and smart, and so hopefully the exception to the old Patriots rule.

The past two seasons have witnessed painful playoff endings for the Patriots. Their subsequent offseason actions wrote the epitaphs for those losses. In 2007, after cobbling together just enough of a receiver squad to make it to the AFC Championship, the Pats went wideout shopping in the offseason, and then broke scoring records.

This year, despite the line’s catastrophic Super Bowl, the Patriots went for mostly defense both in the draft and free agency.

Holding the Giants to 17 points is entirely respectable, until you note the two long drives given up at the tail end of the game. Factor in the defense’s late breakdown the previous playoff loss, and a pattern forms. One that explains this year’s linebacker haul.

We’ll soon see if it bears the same fruit as last year’s harvest.