You know what always used to drive me nuts?
I'd be out on a weekend with my friends, freshly showered, shaven, looking quite dapper, and right in the middle of what was about to become my fourth consecutive rejection of the night, this time by a cute brunette who I can tell is rapidly scanning her mental excuse bank for the perfect reason why she can't go out with me. And as I'm standing there, just waiting for the ax to fall, usually to the tune of "I really don't have time for dating right now," in walks an absolutely gorgeous woman - the kind that makes the record scratch and the whole bar to turn their heads. And on her arm, without a care in the world, is some pale, shapeless mass of man that looked like he was fresh out of an open casting call for The Walking Dead.
At first, I think to myself, "that guy must be loaded," but his mustard-stained clothes and New England Associated Barber's College haircut quickly suggested otherwise. The next line of reasoning was, "well, maybe it's a pity date." But it only takes a minute or so of jealous staring to realize that this woman - this beautiful, beautiful woman - is genuinely into him.
Which, of course, always begged the final question, one that has plagued lonely men for centuries:
What on earth does she see in that guy?
We've all asked that question at some point or another, and unfortunately there is no simple answer. The funny thing is, I'm fairly certain that I am now the subject of that question whenever my girlfriend and I go out on the town. I can't imagine what men everywhere must think when they see a petite, blue-eyed, blonde goddess out with...well, me. I guess, at the end of the day, what it simply comes down to is that we all have certain qualities that we are just plain suckers for. Some of us will always fall for a winning smile. For others, a beautiful set of baby blue eyes will send our hearts aflutter. They say that if you can make a woman laugh, she's yours. Some women die for dimples. If this wasn't a family blog, I could go on to mention certain other...um...assets... that men and women look for. Perhaps there are some female Pulpiteers out there who would love nothing more to be swept off their feet by a man with long hair, a chiseled jawline, and a large broadsword draped over a muscular back.
Or something like that. I've never actually opened any of those romance novels I see in the checkout lines at grocery stores, so I could be wrong there. The point is that everyone has their thing that they are into, the quality that they look for in a mate that just sends them over the edge.
When is comes to coach Belichick, few things light his fire like hard-hitting, intelligent, multi-purpose linebackers. For years now, New England's defense has been built around a core linebacking unit that has been able to give opposing quarterbacks different looks and transition seamlessly in and out of multiple defensive schemes. Unfortunately, gone are the days of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinnest, and Ted Johnson; it's been a while since the Patriots were able to boast the kind of linebackers that helped bring this team three Lombardi trophies.
The good news is that the linebackers on the roster in 2011 definitely showed flashes of becoming an elite unit. Injuries definitely took their toll throughout the season, but overall, I think the Patriots are in fairly good shape at the linebacker position. Anchored by Jerod Mayo, there is a fair amount of depth and varying skillsets to meet the rigorous demands of the position. However, that doesn't mean that the Patriots couldn't do with some more talent back there, and there are actually some very quality linebackers available via free agency this year. Here are the best of the group, as well as those I think would make the most sense in a Patriots uniform.
OUT OF MY LEAGUE
D'qwell Jackson was on this list too, until he was re-signed by Cleveland. Expect the same to happen to these linebackers fairly soon.
Curtis Lofton. Lofton finished fifth in the league in tackles and led the Falcons for the third consecutive year. He isn't great in pass coverage, but is one of the better linebackers in the league against the run. I'm guessing that one of Atlanta's priorities this offseason will be to lock Lofton up with a multi-year deal, especially since he's the kind of player you can get without breaking the bank. He is a great linebacker the central cog in Atlanta's front seven, and I really can't envision him going anywhere else. Atlanta is currently in talks to bring him back, and reports have the talks going well.
Jameel McClain. McClain is just 26 years old and has excelled in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. He is strong against the run and is able to generate QB pressure as well. I'm not sure whether or not Baltimore will be able to keep both McClain and Jarret Johnson, both of whom are free agents this year, although McClain's restricted status leads me to believe that he isn't a player the Patriots will pursue. If he were unrestricted, I think his talent and versatility would make him a great Patriot, but I don't think he's worth whatever tag Baltimore is going to put on him.
SO YOU'RE TELLING ME THERE'S A CHANCE...
There are actually quite a few linebackers out there who would make sense as Patriots, and perhaps under different circumstances, one or more of these players would find their way onto the team. However, given the other needs this team has, these particular linebackers don't really fit.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Hawthorne is a solid linebacker who will likely be allowed to walk and will be available for relatively cheap. He's an adaptable, hard-working player that can be inserted pretty much anywhere along the line. I think that Hawthorne would jump at the chance to play in New England and would actually do better under Belichick than he has done the past few years in Seattle.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: At the end of the day, Hawthorne really isn't a step up from the players already on the roster. He is good, but not great, and thus I don't really think it makes all that much sense to sign him. I think the Patriots are better off working with the talent they already have and/or grooming a young linebacker that they take in the draft than spending precious cap dollars on what is basically another serviceable linebacker.
Overall: If he's like me right after I got out of college, available and willing to work hard for cheap, I say why not. But I think he'll get a respectable offer from Seattle after finding that there isn't an incredible amount of interest out there and end up staying. But even if he doesn't, this pick doesn't really excite me at all.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Fletcher was as productive as any linebacker in the league last year. You can line him up anywhere, he will run through walls for his teammates, and he is a solid veteran presence. We all know that Belichick loves to sign older defensive players, and they don't come much older than Fletcher.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Fletcher will be 37 by the start of next season. That's old for pretty much any position in the league, but for a linebacker, that's ancient. Plus, both Fletcher and the Redskins have expressed strong interest in each other, which means he's likely to stay in Washington.
Overall: It's hard not to like a player like London Fletcher - but he probably won't be available. Plus, he's just too old at this point to be a true impact player, and he definitely isn't a long-term solution at a position where the Patriots already have a decent amount of depth. This one doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but it's also one of those scenarios where I won't be surprised if he ends up a Patriot next year.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Tulloch is a speedy, compact linebacker that excels at shedding blockers and wrapping up ballcarriers. He plays much bigger than his 240 lb frame dictates and can crash through the middle of a line or sprint around the edge to get to the passer. The Lions don't have a lot of cap room, and they have several other players to pay, so Tulloch may ultimately walk. He and Brandon Spikes would make for one of the most formidable run-stopping linebacker combos in the league.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: If Tulloch does hit the market, the Patriots won't be the only ones to come knocking. I also think that the Lions would very much like to lock Tulloch up long term, and he has said that he likes playing for Jim Schwartz. It's hard to gauge, at this stage in the game, how much money the premier free agent linebackers are going to go for, but I imagine that Tulloch will be among those who get one of the better paydays. If that's the case, I expect New England to bow out.
Overall: I'd like to see Stephen Tulloch as a Patriot, but I don't really see it happening. If linebacker was one of their most glaring needs and Tulloch was a free agent, then I could see it. But I don't think that Tulloch is all that different from what Mayo brings to the table and I won't be upset if the Pats don't even bother kicking his tires.
MOM, DAD...THERE'S SOMEONE I WANT YOU TO MEET.
The Patriots may be one of the hardest teams in the NFL to play for as a linebacker; Bill Belichick is very demanding of the position. These are the players that most live up to those demands.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Although I've heard rumors stating that Dallas is planning to franchise Spencer, I don't think he's worth the $8 million price tag and won't be surprised if he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He's also coming off a down year and may benefit from a change of scenery. Spencer is solid against the run and knows how to pressure the quarterback. He brings a fair amount of speed off the edge and would be tremendously effective in sub packages running in behind some of New England's bigger defensive linemen.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Spencer isn't an overly versatile linebacker, thriving primarily in the left outside backer role. He also benefitted tremendously from playing opposite DeMarcus Ware, who is the league's best outside linebacker, and I'm not sure whether or not he should be viewed as a system player. Bill Belichick values versatility, and Spencer hasn't really shown that. Looking at his recent drop in production, it might make more sense to look for talent elsewhere.
Overall: For the right price, I'll definitely take Spencer. He doesn't represent a massive upgrade in the talent the team already has, but it can never hurt to have a linebacker with Spencer's skillset on the squad to bolster the pass rush on 3rd down. If he's available, I see the Patriots at least expressing interest.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Connor is one of the more versatile linebackers in the 2012 free agent class. He can play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme and is equally strong against the run and the pass. Connor would be a starter for pretty much any other team, but Carolina's linebacking corps is absolutely absurd, and Connor was the odd man out. I've always had the strong belief that every great defense has a crazy white guy in the lineup, and Connor fits that description to a T. He would make a great middle linebacker in a 4-3 and would look great next to Jerod Mayo in a 3-4. He's also only 26, which would make him a long-term solution if he works out.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: There are teams out there who need help at linebacker more than New England does, and Connor may end up getting one of the more surprising paydays of the free agency period. He has also expressed a desire to stay a Panther, and while I don't expect him to be back with Carolina, when a player has a strong enough affinity for a team, contracts can always be worked out. Linebacker also isn't as glaring a need for New England as cornerback, safety, or defensive lineman, so chances are Connor won't be overly high on Belichick's wish list.
Overall: I'm much higher on Dan Connor than I am on Anthony Spencer. I would love to see the Patriots sign him, and I definitely think it's a possibility if he doesn't command a huge deal. I can see a team like the Rams come in and offer him money that the Patriots are in no way willing to pay, but if not, Connor would make a fantastic Patriot.
IF WE BOTH AREN'T MARRIED BY THE TIME WE'RE 40...
Lesser FAs that will be available on the cheap. Of all the names on this list, I can see Brooking coming to New England for at least the start of camp. He'll be 36, but at the very least he'll push the younger guys harder. Jarret Johnson is a guy to watch for, too.