By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander are often grouped together in discussions about the Patriots roster. They have a lot in common – each made the team as an undrafted free agent (Alexander in 2004, Woods in 2006), both play linebacker, Alexander inside and Woods outside. Both keep their roster spots on the basis of their special teams play. Both have had turns with the regular defense in huge playoff games -with mixed results. Alexander was a surprise starter at inside linebacker for the AFC championship game following the 2006 season. Alexander actually led the team with tackles that day, with 10, and recorded a sack of Peyton Manning, but also had a hard time keeping up with Colts tight end Dallas Clark. Woods played in the Super Bowl against the Giants the following season, and was on the field with the defense in the first half when the ball popped loose from the Giants offense. Woods was the first to pounce on the ball, and appeared to have it secured, only for it to be ripped out of his hands in the pile and recovered by the Giants.
Those two games may actually be the legacy for Alexander and Woods, fair or not. Because of their prowess on special teams, they’ve each managed to hang on with the team for a number of seasons, and carve out a nice existence for themselves in the process. But has the time come to move on from each?
The Patriots have drafted (or signed) a number of young linebackers over the past three seasons in Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Shawn Crable, Tyrone McKenzie, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes. Previously it seemed that in addition to their special teams abilities, Alexander and Woods might have hung on to their spots simply because they played at a position of need on the roster.
With veterans like Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess and Rob Ninkovich also in the mix, could we see the end of the Woods/Alexander era in New England?
To be perfectly honest, and with nothing against Mr Woods and Mr Alexander, I sure hope so.
This Patriots team isn’t deep or talented enough to be able to keep a high number of players on the roster solely on the basis of their special teams play. While there are exceptions to this, in an ideal situation, those on special teams would also be able to step into the regular defense or offense if needed in a pinch and make a decent showing. Woods and Alexander have had their shot, and haven’t been able to break into the regular defensive rotation. Woods especially has had chances to get into that pass-rushing outside linebacker spot, but has not made an impact. The bottom end of the Patriots roster used to be littered with guys who you just knew were going to make a play at some point during the season when you needed it.
I thought it interesting, that when discussing first-round pick Devin McCourty, Coach Bill Belichick emphasized that the cornerback was a four-down player, meaning that he can be on the field and contribute, no matter what down, regular defense or special teams. It made me think that perhaps that versatility and talent might be something that the coaching staff was looking for in players they’re bringing in.
There are always going to be guys who secure their roster spot on the basis of superb special teams play, but could the trend be changing towards more players with four-down potential?
If you go strictly by linebacker play, Woods and Alexander face an uphill climb to make the roster. The Patriots have at times kept as many as 11 linebackers on the team. If you take the nine above as givens to make the team (though with Crable, that might be a stretch), keeping Woods and Alexander would mean 11 linebackers. I can’t see that many being kept, Andy Hart with Patriots Football Weekly, projects only nine linebackers making the team, though he has Woods making the team over Crable. I think if Crable shows anything in the preseason, he’s on the team.
In some ways, Woods and Alexander have taken the places of Don Davis and Matt Chatham. The difference has been that the latter two were big on special teams, but could occasionally step into the defense and make some players. The former two have not been able to do so. It’s a small thing, but I think it illustrates that erosion of depth in Foxborough over the last five years or so.
I hope that trend is reversing, and it could start with the end of the Woods/Alexander era.