By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- Ask fans who the I-beams of the Patriots are right now and the answers will be predictable: Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker. Maybe even rookie corner Devin McCourty.
But ask the team about Gerard Warren.
The praise he gets from the guys who know him best speaks volumes. They'll tell you that the defensive lineman is invaluable to the 12-2 Patriots.
"He's brought a lot of experience,'' Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "He's a smart guy and a versatile player. He can play inside and outside. He can play it on the nose, both ends. He's a smart guy. He sees things. Very professional. Ready to work every day. Tough. He's banged up like a lot of guys are but he stays out there and fights through it. He's been a very dependable player for us.''
It has taken him a while to get here.
Gerard Warren was the third overall pick in 2001. The 6-foot-4, 330-pounder was convinced the Patriots would draft him but he went earlier, selected by the Browns three picks before Richard Seymour.
For most of his first nine seasons in the NFL he was trapped in dysfunctional and unsuccessful franchises, bouncing from Cleveland to Denver to Oakland.
Finally, last March, a chance to sign with a new team surfaced. It was Seymour who recommended the Patriots. Warren was signed in April as a role player.
"I think when you sign a player like that, I don't know if you know what their role's going to be,'' Belichick said. "When you haven't had him before, and even if you have, you wait to see how their performance relates to everybody else that you have, put it all together and see how it works out. Kind of go back to that Roman Phifer situation."
The coach picked an apt comparison. Phifer was signed by the Patriots in 2001 after 11 seasons in the league. He'd played for Belichick in New York in 1999.
New England handed Phifer a veteran minimum contract and an unspecified role. By the end of the 2001 regular season, the outside linebacker had 93 tackles. By the end of the playoffs, he had a Super Bowl ring. He won two more rings in '03 and '04.
"I told Phifer that I thought he would have a limited role,'' Belichick said. "We had a role for him, I wasn't sure what it was. That role ended up being that he played 98 percent of the plays.
"You just don't know how it's all going to work out with your team from year to year. Some of that's a function of that player. Some of it's a function of what's going on around them. Some of it's a function of who you're playing."
The injury to Ty Warren forced Gerard Warren into more minutes. Despite a knee injury, he has played in all 14 games (9 starts) in New England's stunning 2010 season. He has racked up 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
What he wants is the hardware that Roman Phifer got his hands on.
"Wish I woulda had a lot more Super Bowl rings on my fingers,'' Warren said. "That's what I judge it on winning and losing. I been in the league for 10 years, so I'm blessed for that."
He has believed for a while now that playing for the Patriots is the solution. In May, Warren said he was tremendously impressed with New England's attitude.
"It's all business,'' he said. "Come in. Play winning football. Have fun. Family environment. When you walk in through the doors, its all business. Very appealing."
Six months later Warren cites his time in New England as "one of the most beautiful journeys" in his life. The defensive stats are nice, but the reason this is a great year is because he's playing for an organization "thats got a mission and a plan and a purpose." Because he's finally got a chance to make a difference with a Super Bowl contender.
"That's one guy that came here with all the intentions of helping this ball club win,'' Vince Wilfork said Wednesday. "Great player. Great person. What he's done for us has been great. From his leadership standpoint, playing skills, you name it. However he can help he's helped."
Wilfork's especially high on his new teammate. Though Warren is listed as a defensive lineman, his ability to play over the center or at tackle has allowed the Patriots to be more exotic with how they use Wilfork.
So how come the folks buying Patriots jerseys aren't scrambling for Number 92? Without a Pro Bowl nod or Super Bowl ring, some might call him a bust. But Warren's been more a victim of circumstance.
Even now with the Patriots, the 3-4 defense isn't built to make stars of defensive lineman. Doesn't matter much if the fans don't notice him though. The players do.
"Sometimes I find myself asking him questions," Wilfork smiled. "He'll kind of look at me crazy like, 'Man, I just got here.' It's just a respect factor. He's been around the game for a long time. That's a guy that I've seen a lot of film on, if he was out in Denver, Cleveland or Oakland. I've watched a lot of film on him because there's something about his game I like."
Just another underrated acquisition for Bill Belichick.
"I never try to tell a player exactly what his situation's going to be because it's always subject to change," Belichick said. "This is where we're going to start. Where it ends up? Sometimes it's where you start and sometimes it isn't.''
Gerard Warren is seeing a hell of a lot more of the gridiron than anyone expected last spring. For both the player and the Patriots, this is a really good thing.