Following Vrabel's departure in exchange for a second round pick, trade talk involving the Carolina Panthers' veteran Julius Peppers flourished, and then fizzled. Without a move made on Peppers, fans expected the Patriots to use their first round pick or the second round pick acquired for Vrabel and former quarterback Matt Cassell to restock at this position.
What happened was that the Patriots not only didn't pick a linebacker in the first round - they didn't pick anyone there, instead trading their pick to Baltimore for more lower-round picks.
There were still players available in the second round that seemed like they might've fit in to the Patriots defense, including my own personal pipe dream, Ohio State alum James Laurinaitis. The Patriots chose three defensive players in the second round...but no linebackers. Finally, in the later rounds, the Patriots picked up South Florida's Tyrone McKenzie, who had played OLB, but he probably won't play inside in the NFL. Even if he does, as a late-round rookie, he's unlikely to make the kind of impact a higher-ranked player like Laurinaitis or a veteran like Peppers would.
Even if the Patriots had wanted versatility in a defensive player at OLB, there were also defensive end / OLB hybrids there for the taking in this draft. And still the Patriots passed.
With such an obvious hole to fill, and with free agency as well as the draft having passed without major moves, heads are being scratched from Martha's Vineyard to the northernmost reaches of Maine.
The question I find most intriguing that's being asked in all this is whether or not the Patriots might be moving away from the 3-4 defensive scheme. To do this, the Patriots would have to totally reconfigure their defensive line, where stout, aggressive talent is crucial in the two-gap version of the 3-4 the Patriots usually run.
When you think 'stout, aggressive talent' and 'defensive line' with the Patriots, who do you think of? Why, none other than the Patriots' two biggest contract question marks, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork. And oh, by the way, another standout Patriots defensive lineman, Jarvis Green, is also up for contract renegotiation after this season.
Meanwhile, though no linebackers or DEs were selected in this year's draft, the Patriots took two nose tackles, BC's Ron Brace and Kentucky's Myron Pryor.
Given we have so little evidence to go on so far, a wide variety of scenarios are possible; the most plausible seems to be that two college NTs might not wind up NTs in the NFL, but instead could be insurance for Wilfork and Green. This draft could have been Belichick's way of signaling that he's willing to play hardball with his veterans on the defensive line and nothing more.
But another possibility is currently being debated in football circles: that these moves signal a move away from the 3-4 defense in favor of a 4-3 scheme.
This seems unlikely. The Patriots were actually among the first teams to implement the 3-4 under Chuck Fairbanks in the 1970's. Bill Belichick's experience with the 3-4 stems from his upbringing as a coach under Parcells, and he has developed the 3-4 system carefully and thoughtfully during his time as Patriots head coach. It doesn't seem like he'd move away from the scheme based on one year's contract issues.
But it was also the consensus after the 2008 season - indeed, after the 2007 season - that the Patriots defense was in need of a major overhaul. Last year, especially, the flagging veterans and too-green kids did not combine for a pretty picture by the time all was said and done. And the trade of Mike Vrabel, seemingly out of the blue, shows there are no sacred cows where Bill Belichick is concerned. That's not to mention the sudden departure of Ellis Hobbs, as well as this year's choices in the draft -- you can always expect the unexpected from him.
At the very least, if we're wondering all this out in TV land, you can be sure the Patriots' opponents are doing similar speculating about what New England's next move will be. And I'm sure that's exactly how Belichick wants it.