- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas should be feeling fairly comfortable right about now. He might have been the team's most expensive offseason acquisition -- netting a five-year contract that included $20 million in guaranteed money -- but he hasn't had to carry the weight that normally comes with such big money.
As soon as the Patriots completed a trade for controversial wide receiver Randy Moss in late April, Thomas was pushed safely into the backdrop. And to be honest, he's the kind of guy who has no problems operating without the glare of the limelight.
The irony is that people should be paying more attention to Thomas because he'll have a bigger impact on the Patriots' fortunes. Although Moss is supposed to make life easier for Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, Thomas is the guy who is going to improve a defense that really didn't receive as much blame as it deserved for last season's finish. After all, it wasn't the offense that fell apart in that AFC Championship Game loss to Indianapolis. It was a defense that surrendered 38 points and blew a 21-3 second-quarter lead.
To be clear, Thomas is not a savior, and he is quick to say that "this isn't a one-man defense; it's the [coach] Bill Belichick defense." However, he is the kind of player New England needed to acquire. One look at the age of the Patriots' linebackers backs up that point. Tedy Bruschi is 34, Junior Seau 38 and Mike Vrabel 32. Thomas will turn 30 on Aug. 18, and if it weren't for another 29-year-old -- outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin -- he would be the baby of this group.
That type of age catches up with a team eventually. Whenever you play the 3-4 defense and you have several linebackers who can remember the Reagan administration, you are bound to have problems. We witnessed that firsthand in that AFC title game, when Colts tight end Dallas Clark gained 137 receiving yards and the one-two punch of Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes produced 125 yards on 28 carries. With Thomas in place, there is simply less chance of that happening.
Thomas does just about everything, most of it at a fairly high level. The past two seasons, he averaged 84 tackles and 10 sacks while playing defensive end, linebacker and even safety. Last season, Thomas earned his first Pro Bowl nomination as a defensive player (he had earned a nomination in 2003 for his special-teams play). As Bruschi said: "He is versatility with a capital V. I can't wait to see what Bill Belichick does with him."
The key thing for Thomas is making sure he doesn't put too much pressure on himself, especially because his star has risen at a ridiculously rapid pace. When he came into the NFL seven seasons ago, he was just hoping to survive. His first year in Baltimore, in 2000, Thomas didn't even play, but he did pay close attention to the veterans in that locker room.
"One thing they always told me was that the more you can do in this league, the longer you can stay around," Thomas said. "I took that to heart."
Thomas was willing to listen, but he also benefited from having excellent teachers. He learned pass-rushing moves from Pro Bowl-caliber players such as ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett. He picked up tips on interior line play from tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. And when Thomas started playing linebacker, Pro Bowlers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware showed him how to blitz, read blocking schemes and drop into coverage.
Although the public mostly saw Thomas as a special-teams stud -- a 6-foot-2, 270-pound gunner -- and a solid role player, the Ravens knew exactly what they had in his early years. In fact, all that obscurity has helped Thomas keep his perspective today. "I'm obviously going to have higher expectations of myself," he said. "But I also believe the game doesn't change because you make more money. I'll still be studying film, hitting my playbook and working hard because I know people will be more prepared for me. It's like I always say: I can either be humble or get humbled."
Don't expect Thomas to get humbled. He's learning the nuances of Belichick's system and is saying all the right things. One thing he doesn't do these days is talk much about Baltimore. He appreciated the opportunity to blossom in that organization but doesn't want his teammates reading a bunch of quotes about how the Ravens used him. The novelty of being a multidimensional talent has worn off. Now, it's time to focus on helping the Patriots.
That should be good news for fans in New England because Thomas still believes he has plenty to prove. He's a team guy who cares most about winning games and earning his paycheck. That's how he made a name for himself in this league. That's also how he'll make a talented Patriots defense even better.
Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.