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Rookie Mayo blends into Patriots' linebacking mix

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Reporters swarmed the New England Patriots' minicamp practice by the dozens Friday. Not one of them scored an audience with the 10th player chosen in the NFL draft only two months ago.

Jerod Mayo, the versatile rookie linebacker from Tennessee, walked off the Dana Farber Fieldhouse practice field and into the locker room without fanfare while coach Bill Belichick, safety Rodney Harrison and even running back Sammy Morris held court.

Mayo might be the logical successor to Tedy Bruschi, one of the Patriots' all-time greats, but for now he is the potential impact player almost no one is talking about. This is how they do it in New England, where the veterans are veterans and the rookies, even the high-profile ones, tend to be seen and not heard.

"[Mayo] is eager to learn and you can tell that much," veteran defensive lineman Ty Warren said.

"From what I can tell, he does study. The opportunities he does get to come out there with us, you really don't hear Coach yelling at him because he's messing up.

"All those things are good vibes, but to give you anything in depth about his future or his role on the team, it's too early."

Belichick always has favored more seasoned linebackers to handle the varied responsibilities that make his defense so versatile. The Patriots switch in and out of their 3-4 base as situations demand, placing pressure on players to understand not only their own assignments, but those of the players around them. Young players need time to figure out the nuances.

Mike Vrabel, nearly 33, and Adalius Thomas, nearly 31, are firmly established as the starting outside linebackers. Bruschi, who turns 35 on Monday, is back as one of the starters on the inside.

Victor Hobson, 28, could start ahead of Mayo this season. Either way, the staff figures to devise specialized roles for the rookie, which could use his obvious talents without placing too much pressure on him right away. Asked about judging Mayo on more than simply how many games he starts, Harrison demonstrated the mentality all newcomers are advised to learn before assimilating in New England.

"To be honest, I don't care how you look at a rookie as long as he comes in and does his job and he works hard," Harrison said. "That is what we look at. However the coach uses him, that is on Bill Belichick. That is not my job to judge or any other player on this team to judge."

Harrison laughed at the thought during a walk across the outdoor practice field toward Gillette Stadium.

"We have enough problems trying to get ourselves together, trying to line up and do our jobs, so how the heck am I going to judge a rookie or someone else?" he said.

Mayo appeared to fit in Friday while chatting casually on the sideline with Bruschi to his left and veteran strong safety Tank Williams to his right.

To the uninitiated, Mayo could have been a veteran.

"As time goes on and he finds himself being more familiar with guys and the scheme and the system, he is starting to open up and you're starting to see his personality a little more," Harrison said.

The Patriots have seven unsigned draft choices and 10 rookie free agents in camp. Nineteen of the remaining 65 players are at least 30 years old, providing youngsters with their own living reference library. Harrison, 35, is the oldest starter on defense.

"Rookies here are never on their own," Harrison said. "We have so many veteran guys that talk to rookies, talk to each other. Bruschi, Vrabel, myself, Richard Seymour -- we talk to each other about different things all the time. I think no matter where you are at in the league, you can always learn and always get better, and the constant communication between players is huge."

Harrison broke into the league with San Diego in 1994. He still credits cornerback Dwayne Harper, linebacker Lew Bush and linebacker Junior Seau among those who helped him adjust to the NFL. Warren, the Patriots' first-round choice in 2003, started four games as a rookie and nearly every game since. He credits Seymour, Harrison and former teammates Anthony Pleasant, Rick Lyle and Roman Phifer for bringing him along.

On the field, Mayo has the look of a typical promising rookie, flashing speed on one play, scrambling to track rookie free-agent running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis in coverage on another.

Like most head coaches, Belichick generally keeps the praise to a minimum when publicly assessing rookies in camp.

"He is a smart kid, runs well, pretty physical player and I think he will be a great addition," Belichick said on draft day. "Where he fits, we have to wait and see."

Adding a linebacker early in the draft qualifies as uncharted territory for New England in the Belichick era.

Before drafting Mayo and Michigan's Shawn Crable among the top 78 choices this year, the Patriots hadn't taken a linebacker higher than 170th overall -- Ryan Claridge in 2005 -- since Belichick assumed control of football operations eight years ago. Until this year, the Patriots' veteran strength at the position allowed them to focus on other positions early in the draft.

The six linebackers Belichick drafted from 2000 to 2007 were late-round picks who combined to start seven games for the team. None of the six remains on the roster. Tully Banta-Cain, now with the 49ers, became most prominent among them.

Elsewhere, linebackers drafted in the range where the Patriots found Mayo tend to start right away.

NFL teams drafted 10 of them between the fifth and 15th overall choices from 2000 to 2007. Eight of the 10 became full-time starters as rookies:

2007: Patrick Willis, chosen 11th overall by the San Francisco 49ers.

2006: A.J. Hawk, chosen fifth overall by the Green Bay Packers, and Ernie Sims, ninth overall by the Detroit Lions.

2005: Shawne Merriman, chosen 12th overall by the San Diego Chargers, and Derrick Johnson, 15th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs.

2004: Jonathan Vilma, chosen 12th overall by the New York Jets.

2001: Dan Morgan, chosen 11th overall by the Carolina Panthers.

2000: Brian Urlacher, chosen ninth overall by the Chicago Bears.

As encouraging as the list of instant starters might be for a rookie in Mayo's position, Pittsburgh's Lawrence Timmons (chosen 15th in 2007), and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (10th in 2003) were notable exceptions. Both needed time to find their way on veteran teams running 3-4 defensive schemes.

Timmons has yet to crack the starting lineup in Pittsburgh, although reportedly he is making progress. Suggs became a starter in Baltimore during his second season.
Mayo faces his own learning curve in New England.

As for the Patriots' recent first-round choices, regardless of position, Warren's experience was typical. Most started a handful of games as rookies before emerging as regular contributors. Of the team's eight previous first-round choices under Belichick, only Seymour and guard Logan Mankins started more than six games in their first NFL seasons.

"To be honest with you, when I was drafted, I didn't know what to expect, so I was searching for answers," Warren said. "The thing I did was try to gravitate to the veterans who were willing to help me in the transition. That is probably the best thing for any rookie who comes into the NFL."

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.