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THERE WAS mild surprise at the top of last month's draft when the Rams, Falcons and Raiders passed on LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and the Jaguars traded up 18 spots to get Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey at No. 8. But the most shocking early selection came at the 10th spot, where the Patriots took Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo.
New England simply doesn't draft linebackers in the first round, or for that matter the second, third or fourth. Before taking three LBs this year—the Pats also selected Michigan's Shawn Crable in the third round and Nebraska's Bo Ruud in the sixth—New England had drafted only five linebackers since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000, none earlier than the fifth round. Only one of those picks, Tully Banta-Cain, started a game for the Patriots; none were on New England's 2007 roster.
Mayo, who played inside and outside in college and was projected as a late first-rounder, certainly had top credentials. He's 6'1", 242, runs the 40 in 4.54 seconds and last year became the first Volunteer since 1990 to make 140 tackles in a season. Still, Belichick prefers players who have not only size, toughness and intelligence but also NFL experience: Four of his top five linebackers last season were signed after they spent at least four seasons with other clubs.
"When you're dealing with the defenses of the Patriots, you have to have guys who are very mature," said Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, who played under Belichick for nine seasons when Belichick was a Giants assistant. "You have to have guys who know just by looking at film what the possibilities are out of certain formations. And if things come up that you haven't planned for, you have to have guys who are able to keep their poise."
While that philosophy has worked well for New England this decade, age is catching up to the linebacking corps, particularly on the inside, where Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau are 34 and 39, respectively. The drafting of Mayo signals that Belichick has made a real commitment to getting younger and more athletic.
"I'm a student of the game," Mayo said on the Monday after the draft. "When I'm at home, I'm studying film. I'm always trying to learn the ins and outs and where the weaknesses are in the defense, where the stretch points are. I don't study players; I just like watching defenses in general, I like to watch units as a whole."
Though Mayo was still several days from reporting to rookie minicamp, which opened last Friday in Foxborough, he clearly sounded as if he possessed the selfless attitude that Belichick demands. "Mayo is in for a treat," says Seau, who started 16 of 30 games the past two seasons for the Pats but is unsigned for '08. "He got selected by the guru of linebackers. The best thing about Belichick is that he will give you a specific role. All you have to do is play it, do it and own it. He would not have invited this guy into his house if he didn't believe it was going to work out. He would have traded the pick and grabbed a veteran who has been around the league. For him to draft a youngster as high as he did, the kid has to have something."
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