The Patriots’ first public training camp practice is Thursday, July 29, and with 82 players on the roster, there is plenty to analyze. ESPNBoston.com has picked what it feels are the top eight aspects to monitor. As part of the “Countdown to Camp”, they will be counted down with one each day leading up to the first practice.
No. 7: Young linebackers and their development
Why it’s a top issue: One of the Patriots' main weaknesses in 2009 was a lack of a pass rush: The team blitzed more than 40 percent of the time, ranking them seventh in the NFL, which was a sign that there wasn't enough pressure out of the standard four-man rush. The fourth rusher most often comes from the outside linebacker spot. Furthermore, the heart of the defense is the inside linebacker spot and former undrafted free agent Gary Guyton played 84 percent of the snaps there in 2009, the second highest total of any defender.
Why it might change: From a personnel standpoint, the selection of second-round draft choices Jermaine Cunningham (outside linebacker) and Brandon Spikes (inside linebacker), the return to health of 2009 third-round draft choice Tyrone McKenzie (inside linebacker), and, to a lesser degree, 2008 third-round draft choice Shawn Crable (third round).
Historical perspective: The inside linebackers are the youngest in Bill Belichick's 11-year tenure. No longer can Belichick count on veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson and Junior Seau, which highlights the importance of development. Cunningham is the highest outside linebacker (53rd overall) the Patriots have drafted in Belichick's tenure.
Xs and Os thought: When the Patriots set their initial 53-man roster in 2009, they kept 3 inside linebackers (Jerod Mayo, Guyton, Eric Alexander) and 5 outside linebackers (Tully Banta-Cain, Derrick Burgess, Rob Ninkovich, Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods). Special teams contributions are often a factor in that decision-making process.
Looking to the future: How realistic is it to expect immediate pass-rush contributions from Cunningham at outside linebacker? Pat Kirwan of NFL.com examined the topic earlier this year, pointing out that teams relying on rookie pass-rushers should be careful in doing so.
Fun fact: Mayo lives five minutes from Gillette Stadium. "I feel I can get so much better as a football player living near work," he explained.
No. 8 -- Tight ends & the red zone