Patriots defense will be youngest in many years

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

When the New England Patriots open their season Sept. 14 versus the Buffalo Bills on "Monday Night Football," their defense will lack three mainstays fans have grown accustomed to seeing for the better part of a decade.

Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison have been erased from the depth chart over the past few months. Bruschi and Harrison retired. Vrabel was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.

They've played a combined 40 seasons, 27 of them for New England. Bruschi and Vrabel played on all three Super Bowl winners, Harrison for two.

The loss of that much experience might give the Patriots their youngest opening-day starting lineup since Pete Carroll was in charge and almost certainly their youngest since Bill Belichick's first season as head coach.

On Sept. 14, the Patriots will be as young as 26 years, 278 days old -- almost three years younger than last year.

Elias Sports Bureau data reveals the last time the Patriots were that green was in 1997, with an average age of 26 years, 199 days.

New England's defense got a little younger each year from 2004 through 2007. But the average age jumped a full year in 2008 to a ripe 29 years, 85 days.

It's difficult to calculate precisely what the average age of New England's starting defensive lineup will be on opening day because Belichick is expected to lean harder on a 4-3 scheme this year. That, plus the fact cornerback Shawn Springs has been hurt for most of training camp, makes projecting the starting defensive line a little tricky.

For the accompanying chart, we've penciled in second-year pro Jonathan Wilhite at left cornerback instead of the 34-year-old Springs, an offseason free-agent acquisition. We've also factored in rookie Ron Brace as the second defensive tackle to give us the youngest average.

But even if we include eight-year veteran Derrick Burgess and Springs in the starting lineup and remove Brace and Wilhite, the average age comes out to 27 years, 352 days, knocking two-plus years off last year. It still would be their youngest lineup since 2000.

Belichick's defense averaged 27 years, 49 days for his first game as Patriots coach.

Special thanks to ESPN researchers Andrew Villa, Peter D. Newmann and Lisa Brooks for their help in putting these numbers together.