by Scott Benson

picWe’re fewer than 20 days from the 2009 NFL Draft, so it’s time for the PD War Room staff to put its chips down on the prospects we’ve come to like over the last three months of exhaustive (all that scrolling and clicking) research.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll look at each of the position groups and identify the players we think would make fine Pats, should the opportunity present itself. Chris Warner will run the second-day prospects through their paces while I work the white board for the Pats first four picks (selections 23, 34, 47 and 58).

We start today with the linebackers. Two reasons – from the beginning, this draft has been considered rich with them, and two, we are talking about the New England Patriots here. Despite recent protestations to the contrary (“Uh, I didn’t see any drop off in Mike Vrabel’s play last season” – these guys sound like Sgt. Schultz), the Pats’ need at the position has been evident for some time.

Thank God they put one in the cheap seats with their shrewd selection of defensive rookie of the year Jerod Mayo last April. But there’s still much work to do; from here, it looks like at least two of the four starting spots need immediate attention. What better time than “The Year of the Linebacker” to continue rebuilding their most critical defensive position?

Early First Day (Trade Up)

The first rule of the War Room is that we don’t trust the other 31 teams in the league. Especially the 22 picking before the Patriots. Top prospects Aaron Curry and Brian Orakpo are due to come off the board in the first ten picks, meaning the next linebacker taken could set off a run before the Pats even get close to the podium. If New England is targeting one or more of the trio of USC linebackers that comprise the next wave of first round prospects, they may have to move up to snag him.

They’re well armed to do it. According to the old trade value chart, the combination of their 23rd and 34th pick could get them as high as the 10th selection. Their 23rd and 47th could get them all the way to 13th. The first round pick coupled with the 58th pick could move them as high as 15th.

Of course, it’s been suggested that chart is now obsolete, in that it doesn’t accurately reflect the double-edged sword that comes with the exorbitant salaries of the top picks. Yet even on Mike Florio’s draft update (which seems to better equalize the value of first round selections), the Pats could package two of their first four picks and still move up to the middle teens.

By all accounts, they’ll have to do so in order to snag USC ILB Rey Maualuga as Mayo’s running mate on the inside of the Pats 3-4. Even though he’s second only to Andre Smith in being dogged this draft season (he can’t play three downs, he’s immature and unstable, he was surrounded by great players), I see an explosive, dominating player who would make an impact in New England, right away.

Sometimes we think too much. You know, I don’t even care if he comes off the field on third down. I figure he’s going to raise enough hell the first two. I see a punishing inside hitter in the run defense, with enough mobility and intensity to get sideline to sideline, and do you question for a minute that his quickness and aggression would instantly upgrade the Pats inside blitzing game?

I can’t think of another prospect that feels more like the right fit at the right time. I’d be more than happy to swap the 23rd and 34th pick for the top player on the PD defensive board. If he needs guidance on how to be a pro, he’ll get it in New England. Just don’t take the instinct to attack away.

I might not go that far up for USC OLB Clay Matthews, but then again I might. First thing – the Patriots do not have a player on their roster that can close on the quarterback like Matthews. This you cannot teach, and it would have an immediate impact in New England.

Call it speed or quickness if you like – I’m looking at the gap between the quarterback and the edge rusher coming from the back side. It’s there on virtually every five or seven-step passing play, and last year, you could time the closing of that gap with a freaking sun dial. Those who want to fuss about Mike Vrabel, remember this – he could no longer close that gap well enough to influence the outcome of the play. Some plays? Yes. Most plays? No.

Period. It’s one of the big reasons the Patriots pass rush – and their pass defense – sucked.

Matthews can close that gap on the next level, and would, and the above cited Pro Day coverage displays the kind of athleticism that would be required of Vrabel’s replacement on the outside. Make no mistake – Mike Vrabel was a sensational player who could do everything in his day, and the footprint he’s left won’t easily be filled. It won’t happen overnight. It especially won’t happen in this draft, from what I can see.

But you have to start somewhere, and it seems to me that a good place to start would be a big-league set of tools combined with the kind of makeup and drive that takes you from a walk-on special teamer into the first round of the NFL Draft. I’d be more than happy for the Patriots to exchange their 23rd pick and another second rounder for a prospect like Matthews.

His ascendency over the past few months may make a trade a necessity come draft day.

Mid First Day (Picks 23, 34)

One of the reasons I’m favoring a trade up at this position is that I’m nowhere near as enthusiastic about the rest of the first day prospects.

OLB Brian Cushing is the least impressive of the USC trio from everything I’ve read and watched (caveat – they’re all better than most). He may also be rated as a top 20 pick, but I won’t advocate a trade up in this case. If the board breaks a certain way and he falls to 23, fine. I think there might be a place for him in New England. But in Cushing, I don’t see someone they ought to move up for.

What I like – he’s all football player. No question he’ll throw himself into it every minute, and the word is he’s got an aptitude for the classroom stuff. He has decent mobility and he’s versatile (started both inside and out for USC). He’s played and succeeded in a big program, which is often an underrated factor at this time of year, once people start running around in shorts.

What I don’t like – there are questions about his durability, given his kamikaze nature. From here, I guess don’t see an impact pass rusher. I’m curious as to why he’s been projected as such on the pro level. I see his build and his skill set and think inside player, not edge player. I’d rather see him on the inside in New England.

But there’s little question he’s a very good football player who, with good health, will be a solid pro. If the Pats ended up with him at 23, I think it would be hard to kick.

You might get some kicking if the Pats select DE-OLB Connor Barwin of Cincinnati with their first pick, given that the former tight end has just one season as a defensive end under his belt. He’s not going to be as polished as the USC guys. Now you’re going to ask him to play his third position in three years.

But watch this highlight video. I see the second most promising 3-4 edge rusher (next to Matthews) in the draft. I see a player with all kinds of athleticism, mobility and instincts. Over his college career, he’s been his team’s best defensive player, best offensive player, and best special teamer. He’s said to have the right makeup and he’s done all the right things through the draft run-up. Like Matthews, I think he could make an immediate impact as a situational rusher while upgrading the Pats special teams and maybe even aping Vrabel as a goal line tight end.

If Maualuga and Matthews both disappear from the board before the Pats can select them (as many expect they will), it says here Barwin would still offer linebacking promise in the 23rd slot. Ideally, from a Maualuga and Matthews-less board, the Pats might grab a top corner or defensive lineman with 23 and secure Barwin with the 34th pick. Only problem with that plan is that the ascending Barwin may not last that long.

Missing the PD Board cut: Ohio State ILB James Laurinaitis, a smart, accomplished guy who may end being just an average pro; Penn State DE-OLB Aaron Maybin, a top edge rushing prospect who many suspect is too passive for success at the next level; and Northern Illinois DE-OLB Larry English, the pass rusher who no two scouts agree on. That puts me off, I admit. It also puts me off that he hasn’t convinced anybody that he has the athletic ability to adapt to the varied responsibilities of a pro linebacker. He’d be a much better gamble in the late second round.

Late First Day (Pick 47, 58)

We’re at the point now where I wonder if the Pats could draft a linebacker that would be substantially better than young players like Gary Guyton, Vince Redd and Shawn Crable.

I sort of like Virginia OLB Clint Sintim because he has a lot of experience in the Pats system, he can rush the passer and he’s got the size to hold up in the box. The concern is a lack of top-end athleticism, and whether he can master coverage skills. These may put you off spending an earlier pick on him, but you know what they say about closing time.

That’s the top of PD’s linebacker board. Chris Warner will be here tomorrow with our favorite second day prospects.