With the surprising inclusion of veteran Mike Vrabel in the Matt Cassel trade to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick on Feb. 27, it’s pretty clear the Patriots are looking to get younger at the linebacker position.
The immediate impact of rookie Jerod Mayo may have convinced Patriots coach Bill Belichick that younger players can handle the position, even though the team has often relied upon more experienced players at linebacker.
One player who will likely see his role expanded in 2009 is Gary Guyton. The rookie saw more and more playing time as last season progressed, and the 23-year-old could be one of the keys to next season’s linebacking corps.
“I thought it was definitely a pretty good year for me,” said Guyton, who is spending the off-season in his hometown of Atlanta. “I feel I have a lot to learn and can get better. But I did think that I did well as an undrafted free agent, and I was ready when called.”
Guyton, who played at Georgia Tech, signed with the Patriots last May as a free agent. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the team’s opening-day roster. With a steady stream of injuries last season, Guyton was called upon to play inside and the less familiar outside linebacker.
The 6-foot-3, 242-pounder played in 14 games, had 26 tackles (22 solo, four assists), recovered a pair of fumbles, and had three passes defended. He played more than 300 snaps, nearly a third of all defensive plays. Further helping his cause was his play on special teams, where he had seven tackles.
Perhaps no team in the league values players who can fill more than one role as much as the Patriots. Guyton showed the versatility Belichick craves by starting on the outside at Seattle and on the inside the following week at Oakland.
“Coming into the NFL was a new challenge,” said Guyton. “I had to learn new defenses and a new environment. It’s a lot to get involved in. But once you get settled in and learn everything, you can handle it much better.”
Guyton finished the season third on the depth chart at inside linebacker behind Mayo and Tedy Bruschi. With Bruschi, 35, entering the final year of his contract and the Patriots not figuring to bring back Junior Seau, Guyton could form a foundation with Mayo on the inside.
Or he may be called upon to play on the outside again. Rosevelt Colvin is unlikely to return, and Vrabel is already gone. New England’s only established outside linebackers are Adalius Thomas, who is coming back from a broken forearm, and Pierre Woods, who re-signed last week for $1.54 million.
Mayo’s stellar play overshadowed Guyton, but the rookies had a similar transition to life in the NFL.
“For a young guy to come in and do that well is great,” said Guyton about Mayo. “He works
very hard and deserves everything he has gotten.”
Guyton is signed through 2009, and if he continues to contribute, he just might solidify a long-term future in New England.
“I just want to get better as an athlete in all aspects of the game,” said Guyton. “That’s what I want.”
Hate to see you go
Josh McDaniels and the Broncos looked into trading Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler and bringing in Matt Cassel to replace him — only to be beaten to the punch by Scott Pioli and the Chiefs. Another Patriot, wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, also drew the interest of McDaniels, the Patriots’ former offensive coordinator. Gaffney signed a four-year, $10 million deal with Denver on Feb. 27.
McDaniels will likely run a three-receiver offense with the Broncos, and Gaffney should make a seamless transition. The 28-year-old played in all 16 games in 2008 and had 38 catches for 468 yards (12.3 average) and two touchdowns.
“I loved New England and being a Patriot,” Gaffney told the Globe. “The fans up there are great and it’s just a great place to be.”
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This week's OT cover
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports