Patriots do the OLB shuffle

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was a time when New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick could jot the names "Vrabel," "McGinest" and "Colvin" on his depth chart and know what he was getting at outside linebacker.

This year represents the opposite end of the spectrum. Arguably no position is a bigger question mark, and watching the Patriots' organized team activity Thursday offered few definitive answers as to how the club plans to fill the void.

When the practice started and the defense was in its base 3-4 alignment, third-year player Shawn Crable and 10-year veteran Derrick Burgess were the first players to line up at outside linebacker.

Then came a combination with Crable and five-year veteran Pierre Woods. Soon after, Tully Banta-Cain rotated in, followed by Rob Ninkovich and second-round draft choice Jermaine Cunningham.

When it came time for the team's less-experienced players to run through plays in 11-on-11 work, Marques Murrell lined up opposite of Crable.

That Crable (0 career NFL starts) was part of the first and last outside linebacker group reflected the current makeup at the position.

Anything is possible.

Based on Thursday's practice, it wouldn't be surprising if Burgess gets a legitimate crack at a starting spot. The 10-year veteran played approximately 57 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2009, and his role was mostly straight-forward -- rush as a defensive end off the left side.

While he was mostly used in sub packages last season (five or six defensive backs), it looks like Burgess (6 feet 2, 260 pounds) could be expanding his skill set in his second year in the team's system.

"Terminology, I'm a lot more comfortable. But playing certain things, certain situations, it's still a work in progress," Burgess said of his time at outside linebacker, which has included lining up on both sides of the field. "I'm just working on it."

Burgess brushed off questions about playing outside linebacker, preferring to avoid specifics about how lining up there is different than his primary responsibilities from 2009. One of his main challenges is dropping back in pass coverage, which is often the biggest adjustment for pure defensive ends making the transition to outside linebacker.

For Ninkovich, a five-year veteran who is a sleeper candidate at the position, that has been the most important part of organized team activities over the last three weeks.

"Pass dropping is a little bit different for someone who has been a d-lineman their whole life," said Ninkovich, who, like Burgess, has mostly played defensive end as a pass rusher, going back to his college days at Purdue.

"A defensive lineman, your whole mentality is going forward. Going backwards is a bad thing. Now that I'm dropping, I'm getting a good understanding of the route concepts and the timing of everything. I think the more reps you get at anything, especially when it comes to passing, you're just going to improve on it every time."

Ninkovich, who wears Mike Vrabel's old jersey No. 50, has enjoyed tackling the challenge. If he produces like Vrabel did as a run-stopper and pass-rusher from 2001 to 2008, what now looks like a question mark could be an unexpected strength on the roster, although that seems like a lot to ask from a player who has yet to start an NFL game.

Vrabel was a Swiss army knife because of his versatility, and that's one aspect of playing outside linebacker that has stood out to the 26-year-old Ninkovich.

"The outside 'backer position is so versatile -- you're a defensive end in the sense of pass rush but you get all the [pass] drops you need to be a good linebacker," he said. "College was fun, because it was just 'get after the ball' They tell you 'sack the quarterback and tackle anyone with the ball.' Here, you have to do a bit more."

Whether the Patriots need to do more at outside linebacker will be one of the pertinent issues once training camp begins in late July and players start hitting with full pads. By that point, the picture should start to come into focus.

For now, it remains an unknown, with a myriad of possibilities.

The question remains: Will those possibilities be good enough?

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.