Pats' Guyton still follows Bruschi's lead

PEABODY, Mass. -- Joining the New England Patriots as a rookie free agent in 2008, linebacker Gary Guyton said that one of the most powerful images he saw was Tedy Bruschi on the practice field.

"Here is a 12-, 13-year vet, not taking anything for granted, still holding himself to a certain standard," Guyton recalled. "That really stuck with me, just watching how he'd get upset with himself in practice if something didn't go right. You can't help but raise your own level as a player when you see that, to try to work with yourself the same way."

The 24-year-old Guyton, who enters his third NFL season in 2010, has had a surprise emergence since the time he first watched Bruschi.

He was mostly a sub linebacker as a rookie, playing on third down and staying on the field for 32 percent of the team's snaps. In 2009, his role expanded to full-time player, seeing action on 84 percent of the snaps -- the second most of any defender.

Looking ahead, the Patriots' assessment of Guyton figures to play a factor in whether they will select a linebacker in this year's draft, target one in free agency, or simply stay put.

Is Guyton better suited to be a sub linebacker where his speed and hustle shine through? Or is he a full-time starter whose speed is complemented with his ability to bang away at those powerful guards in the running game?

Bruschi, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, offers an inside perspective.

"One of the things you recognized right off the bat with Gary was the ability he has physically," Bruschi said of his initial impressions of the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Guyton. "He has good size and tremendous speed; he was the fastest linebacker in the draft coming out. He's very explosive.

"Now, what he has to do is transfer all that ability to playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, which isn't easy, as well as understanding what the coaches want from him. It took me a couple years to learn it. I see the potential in Gary to do that."

In 2009, Guyton started every game at inside linebacker and was credited by Patriots coaches with 93 tackles (49 solo), second most on the team. Guyton mostly played alongside 2008 first-round draft choice Jerod Mayo, who is one of his closest friends on the team, as the Patriots had the youngest inside linebacker tandem in Bill Belichick's 10 years as head coach.

Mayo, Guyton and 2009 third-round draft choice Tyrone McKenzie all return in 2010, and because of that, Bruschi doesn't see the Patriots prioritizing that spot in terms of the draft or free agency. McKenzie missed his rookie campaign with a torn ACL, but he should compete to be part of the mix this year.

Guyton, whose lighthearted personality might create an impression that he isn't serious about his craft, said Thursday night at a charity appearance that he is devoted to improving on what he's built the last two years. He plans to take part in the Patriots' offseason program starting in March and has continued to work out while spending time at his Georgia home.

He had played in a 4-3 defense at Georgia Tech, but after two years in the 3-4, he's noticed progress.

"As the season went on, I became more comfortable," he said. "I had gained a lot my rookie year, too, but this year I became more comfortable playing different techniques, and with anticipation. That was something I picked up, anticipating plays, really taking what I learned in the classroom and applying it on the field. That definitely helped me a lot. Being a young professional just my second year in, I still have a lot to learn, but if you can stay a step ahead you'll be OK."

It was an NFL lesson that Guyton first learned from Bruschi in 2008.

Guyton hit a speed bump last season when he was one of four players sent home by Belichick for being late to an 8 a.m. meeting on a snowy, icy December morning. He said he isn't looking back to that incident, especially not at this point, as his motto is to "stay strong" and keep moving forward. He wears a bracelet with the words "stay strong" to remind himself of that approach.

"The whole goal is to get better at what you do, and to be the best you can be," he said. "That's what I want to do."

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