Previously I had written about the Patriots secondary during Belichick’s tenure, now lets take a look at the best linebackers of the Belichick era. Some of these players were in New England prior to Belichick’s arrival and continued to play well after Belichick taking the reins, and others were either drafted or brought in by Bill via trade or free agency. The players listed are in no specific order or ranking.
Mayo was drafted 10th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Patriots. Mayo was a key contributor to the Patriots defense right away starting all 16 regular season games and leading the team in tackles with 98. Mayo went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Mayo suffered a sprained MCL injury during week one of the 2009 season against the Buffalo Bills. Mayo returned quicker than he was expected, returning week 5 against the Denver Broncos. Even with the missed time due to injury Mayo went on to lead the team in tackles again recording 103 tackles on the season.
The 2010 NFL season was Mayo’s best season as a pro. He was named a captain prior to the season and backed it up in his play, recording a league high 175 tackles on the season. Mayo was named to his first Pro Bowl and was also named a member of the 2010 All Pro team. Mayo cashed in on his amazing year signing a 5-year extension with the Patriots towards the end of the year.
Mayo again surpassed the 100-tackle mark in both 2011 and 2012 and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012 for the second time in his career. Mayo then went on to have two injury riddled seasons in both 2013 and 2014 and though he wasn’t able to play won his first Super Bowl championship in 2014. The Patriots still think Mayo can get back to his pre-injury form and restructured his contract in order for him to stay on the team for 2015. With Mayo’s on-field play making and leadership he for sure is one of the top linebackers of the Belichick era.
Mike Vrabel signed with the New England Patriots prior to the 2001 season and was a member of the team’s first three Super Bowl championships, remaining with the team until being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2008 season.
Vrabel was the face of versatility being able to play both inside and outside linebacker, as well as being able to put his hand in the dirt and play defensive end and even some tight end on occasions. Vrabel was clutch and loved the big games and wasn’t afraid of the moment. He caught a touchdown pass on offense and recorded two sacks in the Super Bowl victory against the Carolina Panthers. Vrabel was named to the Pro Bowl for the first and only time in his career in 2007 as well as being selected to the All Pro team for his first and only time in 2007 after recording 12.5 sacks on the year. Vrabel was a great player for the Patriots during his tenure with the team from 2001 to 2008.
Like Vrabel, Ninkovich has been an extremely versatile player for the Patriots since joining the team. Though he now plays defensive end Ninkovich played at linebacker for a few years at the beginning of his tenure in New England I’m adding him to the list based on how well he has played in New England and the fact that I love Ninkovich and have often said it the past few years that in my opinion he is the most underrated player in the NFL.
Ninkovich signed with the Patriots in August of 2009 and made the team’s 53-man roster. During his first year in New England Ninkovich finished with 23 tackles and a sack playing limited snaps. Ninkovich became a starter at outside linebacker prior to the 2010 season. With an increase in snaps Ninks production increased as well, finishing the season with 6s tackles, 4 sacks and 2 interceptions. Ninkovich continued to improve in 2011 and finished the season with 74 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions and started all 16 games of the regular season for the first time in his career.
Ninkovich moved to defensive end for the 2012 season where he has played since. During his first year at defensive end Ninkovich shined, recording 58 tackles, 8 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries, again starting all 16 games. With Ninkovich moving to the line he was replaced at linebacker with rookie first round pick Dont’a Hightower. Ninkovich continued to play well at defensive end during the 2013 season collecting 91 tackles and 8 sacks. Ninkovich was towards the top of the league in snaps played during the 2013 season. The 2014 season was nothing different for Ninkovich who finished the year with 53 tackles and 8 sacks, yet again starting all 16 games of the regular season. Ninkovich was a leader of the 2014 defense and went on to win the first Super Bowl championship of his career.
The soon to be Patriots Hall of Famer is arguably the best linebacker during the Belichick era and one of the best defensive players in the teams franchise. McGinest was drafted by the team in 1994 but for the sake of this article am just going to look at his time in New England under coach Bill Belichick. Like both Vrabel and Ninkovich, McGinest played both outside linebacker and defensive end in New England and under Belichick.
Belichick’s first year as head coach in New England was the 2000 season. During that season McGinest played in 14 games, recording 63 tackles and 6 sacks. To be honest I cant write too much about McGinest for this season due to the fact that I was only 5 at the time and though I was watching football regularly, don’t remember too much. The 2001 season McGinest missed 5 games due to injury and his production diminished only recording 33 tackles on the year with 6 sacks. The injuries didn’t stop McGinest from playing in Super Bowl 36 and playing a key role in the team’s defense. McGinest was back to being fully healthy during the 2002 season and saw his production jump back up recording 62 tackles with 5.5 sacks. 2003 was a similar one production wise for McGinest with 67 tackles and 5.5 sacks, as well as another Super Bowl championship and being named to the Pro Bowl team. During the 2004 season McGinest collected 9.5 sacks, tied second highest in a season of his career and went on to get his third Super Bowl championship. The 2005 season was McGinest’s last as a member of the Patriots, during which he recorded 56 tackles with 6 sacks. McGinest went on to set two NFL playoff records during the 2005 playoffs. One record was most career playoff sacks, 78, and the other for most sacks in a playoff game, 4.5 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
McGinest was a great player for the Patriots and was a great leader of the defense. McGinest was putting up good sack numbers when the league was still a run focused league and teams weren’t passing as much. McGinest was also clutch and lived for the big moments. My favorite McGinest moment was his game saving tackle at the goal line on fourth down against the Colts, stuffing Colts running back Edgerrin James at the one-yard line.
Last but not least Tedy Bruschi. Bruschi was the leader and the face of the Patriots defense for years. Bruschi played his heart out and was a winner and was an example of a perfect Patriot, he would do whatever needed of him to win and always got the best out of the guys he was playing with. Bruschi was a seven-time team captain and was often overlooked throughout the league only making one Pro Bowl during his career. Bruschi was in New England prior to the arrival of coach Bill Belichick, and was a contributor the New England ever since his time as a rookie when he was primarily a special teams player.
During his first season under Belichick in 2000 Bruschi recorded 105 tackles. The 2001 season saw Bruschi’s production decrease only recording 75 tackles, as well as recording his first of three Super Bowl Championships. The 2002 season was diminished by injury for Bruschi appearing in only 11 games on the season. In those 11 games Bruschi recorded 66 tackles. Coming back from injury in 2003 Bruschi had his best statistical season as a pro, playing in all 16 games and recording 131 tackles as well as 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions. Bruschi went on to win his second Super Bowl Championship, as well as being named an All Pro for the 2003 season. The 2004 season was another strong one for Bruschi, recording 122 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions. Bruschi won his third Super Bowl championship, was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career and was again named an All Pro.
Bruschi then suffered a stroke just days after playing in the 2005 Pro Bowl. It was unclear is Bruschi would make a full healthy recovery, never mind play football again. Bruschi remarkably made a speedy recovery and even came back to play in the 2005 season, just months after suffering the stroke. Bruschi appeared in 9 games and was back to his old form picking up 62 tackles during those 9 games, and was named the Comeback Player of the Year. With being fully recovered medically from his stroke Bruschi appeared in 15 games in 2006 and was again back to his old ways, recording 112 tackles. During Bruschi’s last two seasons in the league in 2007 and 2008 he collected 92 and 75 tackles.
Bruschi is arguably the best linebacker and defensive player of the Belichick era. Bruschi was named to the Patriots Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013 and I believe that he should and one day will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All of the players listed above have played great in New England and under coach Bill Belichick. With the emergences of young star linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on this list somewhere down the line if they can continue and improve on the early success both have displayed in the NFL.