FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots have a hole in the middle of their defense, and they could be turning to a 12-time Pro Bowl selection to help fill it.
Linebacker Junior Seau, who had announced his retirement from the NFL Monday after a 16-year career, was en route to New England last night and, assuming he passes a physical, could sign a contract as early as today, according to multiple league sources.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 248-pound Seau, who spent the first 13 years of his career with the Chargers and the last three with the Dolphins, projects as an inside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. He would likely be called upon on early downs as a run-stuffer.
Injuries have derailed Seau's career in recent years. He played in only seven games last season before being placed on injured reserve with an Achilles' injury, and in 2004 played in just eight games after suffering a torn pectoral muscle.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about Seau Monday, the day Seau announced his retirement.
``I had the opportunity to coach him in Hawaii, in the '98 Pro Bowl," Belichick said. ``I did get to know him out there. He's always been a . . . high-energy type of player that has made a lot of big plays through his career. Of course, we saw a little bit more of him the last couple of years while he was with the Dolphins.
``I know he missed some time but when he was there, having him in the division the last couple of years, I just got to know him a little bit better, seeing him before the game and stuff like that. He's had a good career; 16 years he's been playing, [that's] pretty good."
The Patriots' interest in Seau apparently grew after their exhibition opener in Atlanta last Friday, when the Falcons rushed for 196 yards on 33 carries (5.9 average). Run defense has been a cornerstone of the Patriots' success the last three years, with the team ranking in the NFL's top eight each season.
The Patriots' personnel at inside linebacker has been thinned considerably since the start of training camp. The team planned to pair Tedy Bruschi and Monty Beisel on the inside, and the two spoke early in camp about how they were excited to work together. But Bruschi broke his wrist July 31 and has since had surgery, while Beisel has struggled to stay on the field because of an unknown physical ailment.
The team started Barry Gardner and Don Davis at inside linebacker against the Falcons. Rookie free agent Freddie Roach and Beisel were the primary backups, while Larry Izzo and Eric Alexander also saw playing time at the position. In recent training camp practices, the Patriots have moved Mike Vrabel to inside linebacker, playing him next to Gardner.
For Seau, New England is an intriguing destination because he believes the team can contend for a Super Bowl, which he's never won. The Patriots' genuine interest was instrumental in Seau's decision to potentially postpone his retirement, as he's told those close to him that he wanted to be with a team that he felt truly needed him.
On Monday, at the press conference announcing his retirement, Seau said he believed he could still play.
``I'm healthy, I can play, and there are teams out there that had interest, but they just didn't need [me]," Seau said. ``They wanted me, but they didn't need me. I'm not a player that can play by just wanting to play the game. I'm a guy that needs to win, and they go hand in hand."
Seau, who last appeared in the Pro Bowl in 2002, has appeared in 230 regular-season games and is credited with 1,566 tackles, 52 sacks, 15 interceptions, and 11 forced fumbles. While playing with the Chargers (1990-2002), Seau was known for his intense early-morning workouts. Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, a former teammate of Seau's in San Diego, previously spoke about how he enjoyed working out with Seau in what the players called ``The Breakfast Club."
In Miami, coaches and players quickly took to Seau's approach.
``I only had one year experience with the guy, but you really hold people like Junior Seau in high esteem, not only for the character he has as a person but the competitive character he played this game with for a long, long time," Miami coach Nick Saban said Monday. ``It's hard to think that the guy is not a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame someday."
Added linebacker Zach Thomas: ``Junior was the most competitive guy I've ever been around. He was the greatest linebacker of all time, because no one's really been that consistent for that long. And the way he threw his body around on the field, I'm surprised he lasted that long. He was such a great competitor and gave 100 percent on every play. He loved the game so much that even practice was fun for him."
In San Diego yesterday, the Chargers released a statement regarding Seau's situation: ``Junior left a message for Chargers President Dean Spanos today alerting him that he may sign a contract and play for the New England Patriots. If, in fact, he chooses to continue his playing career, we wish him good health and the best of luck this season. Junior's place in the Chargers' Hall of Fame awaits him when his career is over."