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Willie McGinest rates Patriots' LB corps as NFL's fourth best

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower leading the way, where does the New England Patriots' linebacker corps rank in the NFL?

That was a question that Patriots Hall of Famer and current NFL Network analyst Willie McGinest answered as part of a piece on NFL.com, slotting the group in the No. 4 spot. As part of the piece, McGinest reminisced on his time playing linebacker in New England.

"More often than not ... the linebacking units with the most production have exceptional group play, with two particular things in common: great preparation and communication. Alongside Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and several others throughout my years in New England, I felt that our linebacker group had these components when we helped the Patriots win three Super Bowl titles in 2001, 2003 and 2004," he wrote.

"We were always on the same page, whether we were watching film or playing on Sunday, because we gave our full attention to preparation. We not only knew our own job but the position of every other person in the unit. We were moved around a lot and interchangeable, and that worked to our advantage. However, we could only play this way with good communication. When you're lacking in that area, there is a lot of confusion, players are frequently a step slower and the defense gets beat on the play. If communication is smooth, players can simply react to what the offense is doing, because they know assignments and can diagnose formations quickly."

This is a challenging assignment for McGinest because of the varied defensive systems across the NFL. In this case, he included defensive end Rob Ninkovich as part of the analysis, as his role sometimes includes linebacker-type responsibilities as an end-of-the-line player in the scheme.

"Bill Belichick and Co. tend to move linebackers around and change their responsibilities each week, depending on the opponent," McGinest noted. "It worked with our group over a decade ago and it continues to work with the current players -- specifically Hightower."

One other name that also could be added to the list: Shea McClellin.

The former Chicago Bear projects as the No. 3 linebacker behind Collins and Hightower, both of whom enter the final year of their contracts.