By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
This figures to be one of the most competitive positions in camp, as the Patriots line up candidates to start beside Jerod Mayo. I’m genuinely intrigued by this group, as the team has been trying to find a starting pair in the middle since 2005 when Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer retired. Tedy Bruschi had several partners before Mayo arrived in 2008, then retired prior to last season. Can a couple players from this group step in to be the Johnson/Phifer to Mayo’s Bruschi?
The 2008 defensive rookie of the year has his critics (Yeah, you, Hector), but was also playing with a pretty tough knee injury in his sophomore NFL campaign. He lacked the speed and explosiveness he showed in his rookie year, but still led the team in tackles for the second straight year. If he’s healthy this season, he could be in line for his first Pro Bowl selection – a view held by John Clayton, among others – and should be involved in more “playmaking” situations rather than just making tackles. Already a leader on this defense and team, Mayo is one of the building blocks Bill Belichick is counting on for the next decade.
Guyton is listed second only because of his status as the incumbent starter. He was out of place as a starting inside linebacker, but gave it a good effort last season. When Mayo was out with his injury, Guyton was the man in the middle, calling out the defensive signals. He did okay, but was over-matched physically at times. Guyton isn’t the typical hard hitting inside linebacker, he’s relies more on his freakish speed and athleticism to make plays. He may be the starter to begin the 2010 season, but if he is still starting in December, it means that the next two players listed have disappointed or are injured. Guyton has a place on this team, but starting inside linebacker shouldn’t be the spot.
The Florida product appears to be the player many are counting on to be the physical presence alongside Mayo. A very slow 5.0 40 time scarred many teams off from drafting him, but the Patriots were thrilled that he was still available at #62. His intelligence and strength inside are unquestioned, and he had a strong leadership role on the Gators defense. Interestingly at times, the Gators put him in pass rushing roles on third down, where you would think his lack of speed would hurt him, but he made several big plays as a pass rusher. He looks to be the prototypical big inside linebacker that Bill Belichick loves for his defense, and the offseason camps saw him calling plays and doing the things you could expect from that position. He might well be a starter from day one of the season.
McKenzie is a guy I find particularly intriguing. His story is a great one, and you can’t help but root for him to succeed after tearing his ACL in rookie camp last spring. Of course, we here at PD also love him because he took some time to talk with our own Chris Warner earlier this year. McKenzie is coming off that knee injury, but has played both inside and outside linebacker in his college career, and size, strength and good speed. Having a year to learn the system, which may actually give him a leg up on Spikes. Either way, I think (and hope) that we’ll see a lot of both Spikes and McKenzie this season, and in seasons to come.
He’s already been dubbed a “sleeper” in camp by some writers. The Southern California product has been a star at offseason camps, catching the eye of observers with big plays, as well as being used at fullback at times. He is someone to keep an eye on in preseason, and could find his way onto the 53 man roster when all is said and done.
Primary a special teams player, Alexander’s future has already been talked about here on PD, and in my opinion, it doesn’t look great. Alexander could still make the team because of his special teams play, but it appears he is no longer needed as a backup at middle linebacker. Hopefully the Patriots can make better use of the roster spot.
During the preseason, this is going to be one of the most-watched positions on the team. For the first time in several years it looks to be a competitive spot with some intriguing young talent that could break through. If Spikes or McKenzie can make Guyton a backup and situational player, than things will be looking up. If they can’t pass Guyton on the depth chart, the Patriots might need to go back to the drawing board yet again at this position.