Linebackers have always been incredibly important in any Bill Belichick defense. They're responsible for getting defenders in the right position, they handle a lot of the communication, they're expected to be able to defend the pass and the run, and also be able to pressure the quarterback, they need to be versatile enough to attack in a single-gap defense, and smart enough to defend multiple lanes in a two-gap defense.
It goes on and on.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo announced his retirement and I was wondering where he would rank in the list of best Patriots linebackers under Belichick.
It turns out that the exercise was pretty easy. There is a clear top tier of linebacker under Belichick. The difficult part is distinguishing between the 5-10 range, so I'll be taking the easy way out.
LB Dont'a Hightower (2012-), LB Jamie Collins (2013-), STLB Larry Izzo (2001-08), ILB Roman Phifer (2001-04), OLB Rosevelt Colvin (2003-08), Hall of Fame ILB Junior Seau (2006-09)
Yeah, perhaps Seau isn't in the same category when it comes down to impact, but he was one of the great stories under Belichick. Hightower and Collins are ascending the list and could very well rank in the top three at the end of the careers (contract extensions pending) but their short tenures prevented me from placing them higher on the list.
And then Izzo deserved a shout out.
5. Every Single Position Rob Ninkovich
Yes, Ninkovich is currently the team's starting defensive end. That doesn't matter. In fact, that is one of the reasons why I've ranked Ninkovich ahead of the 6-11 ranked players. Ninkovich's versatility is second-to-Troy Brown when it comes to the Belichick-era and that deserves praise.
He's been the long snapper. He's been the punt protector. He's been inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, in both the 3-4 and the 4-3.
His 42 sacks rank second-most for any Patriots defender under Belichick and 6th most in team history, his 10 forced fumbles rank 3rd for linebackers and his 14 fumble recoveries are the most by any linebacker, his 5 interceptions rank 3rd for linebackers, his 262 tackles rank 4th most for linebackers under Belichick, and his 21 passes defended rank 4th.
In his seven seasons with the Patriots, Ninkovich hasn't reached a peak where every football fan would know his name, as noted by his zero Pro Bowl nods, which prevents him from being higher on the list. But he's going to go down in Patriots history as one of the best defenders of the Belichick-era.
4. Edge Defender Willie McGinest
If this list included pre-Belichick era, McGinest would be much higher on the list, but six of his 12 years in a Patriots uniform predates Belichick. Those're the rules.
And actually, if you look across every statistic in the Belichick-era, McGinest and Ninkovich are pretty even. McGinest ranks 3rd in sacks with 38.5, 5th in tackles, 4th in interceptions, 3rd in fumble recoveries. Ninkovich barely edges out McGinest in pretty much every category.
But peak McGinest was a team leader that helped with three Super Bowls. Peak McGinest was one of the top defenders in the league (one Pro Bowl nod, versus Ninkovich's zero). Peak McGinest is responsible for one of the most iconic plays in Patriots history. Named to the Patriots All-2000s team.
Edge McGinest. Barely. Maybe Iron Man Ninkovich could rise up the list with a few more seasons.
3. Smartest Linebacker Ever Jerod Mayo
His 535 tackles are the most ever by a Belichick linebacker, and he's the only one to ever earn two Pro Bowl nods- and one of two to ever be named First Team All Pro.
Mayo's eight seasons seem to fly by. He was named AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in the lost 2008 season and he quickly ascended to become one of the best linebackers in the league. He was often overshadowed by 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that Mayo was a top 5 linebacker for much of his early career.
After becoming a team leader and captain in just his second season, Mayo was the immediate heart and soul of the entire team, ushering in a shift in team character from the prior era to one of a greater focus on family and friendships.
2. Edge Defender and Tight End Mike Vrabel
The most sacks under Belichick and the 4th most in Patriots history (48), 3rd most tackles (411), tied for the most interceptions (11), 2nd most passes defended (34), the most forced fumbles (13), an All Pro nod (1) and a Pro Bowl nod (1) during the 2007 season. Oh, and 10 touchdowns on 10 receptions on offense.
Vrabel was one of the key rags-to-riches stories of the Belichick-era, a defensive end and linebacker tweener that toiled for four quiet seasons in Pittsburgh before Belichick turned him into one of the greatest pass rushing forces in the entire league.
Vrabel was a key linebacker in the Patriots three Super Bowl wins at the turn of the millennium and was a leader of the 2007 defense. His versatility and production have made him one of the most important Patriots in history. Named to the Patriots All-2000s team.
1. Bill's Favorite Son Tedy Bruschi
Could it be anyone else? His 9 years under Belichick are the most of any linebacker. His 521 tackles are just a smidge behind Mayo's 535. His 11 interceptions are tied with Vrabel for the most by any Belichick linebacker and his 44 passes defended are head and shoulders above the rest. His 4 defensive touchdowns lead the unit. His 11 forced fumbles rank 2nd. His 18.5 sacks lead inside linebackers.
He's the greatest inside linebacker in Patriots history. However you want to define The Patriot Way, you'd better include Bruschi's face next to the definition. Named to the Patriots All-2000s team.
How'd I do with my list? Any disagreements? Anyone want to tackle the 6-10 ranks?