Banta-Cain, selected by the Patriots with the 239th overall selection in 2003, was mildly productive throughout his first four seasons in New England. The outside linebacker, who can also line up at defensive end, recorded a career-high 5 1/2 sacks in 2006, and the San Francisco 49ers rewarded him with a three-year contract worth nearly $9 million in the ensuing offseason.
The native of Mountain View, Calif., and product of the University of California-Berkley clearly got the opportunity to relocate closer to his roots, and he also got himself a mighty contract for someone with his draft status. Banta-Cain cashed in during the 49ers’ defensive overhaul in the 2007 offseason, as they also sent half the Alamo to cornerback Nate Clements and drafted linebacker Pat Willis.
Things didn’t exactly pan out for Banta-Cain the way San Francisco had hoped, though. He played in all 16 games with 10 starts at right outside linebacker in 2007, recording 41 total tackles and 3 1/2 sacks. While the numbers weren’t earth shattering, they provided some hope for a team looking to revamp its defensive image. However, Banta-Cain lost his starting job in 2008 and only registered eight total tackles and 1/2 sack.
As a result, he was released by the 49ers in February, and the Patriots signed him to a one-year deal eight days later — coincidentally, perhaps, a week before New England traded outside linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the second time Banta-Cain returned to a friendly football territory.
“There are subtle differences, but for the most part, things are pretty much the same,” Banta-Cain said about the Patriots. “Obviously, there hasn’t been too much turnaround in the coaching department. There’s been some turnaround with the players, but I’m still familiar with a lot of the things that they do there, and it’s been easy for me to fit right in.”
Banta-Cain even got his old locker back — in the corner of the room next to Jarvis Green’s — after it was rented out on a short-term basis to some stopovers, such as rookie defensive lineman Kareem Brown.
“I think it’s coincidental,” Banta-Cain said about the locker. “But yeah, I got my parking spot back.”
It’s been a good run so far for Banta-Cain, who is one of just nine seventh-round picks from 2003 to still be in the league (48 players were selected in that round, which included compensatory picks). But Banta-Cain wasn’t resting on his previous contract or prior experience with the Patriots when the team went to work during training camp and the preseason. As the summer progressed and Banta-Cain’s roster spot became more secure, his motor never let up.
“Everybody pretty much has to come into training camp with a clean slate,” Banta-Cain said. “Are some of the defenses and some of the things we do familiar? Yes. But from a competition aspect, no matter how hard you prepare, no matter how much you know, everybody is pretty much on the same starting line. My advantage is just that I’ve been in the league for seven years, and four of those years were with the Patriots. They know what I can do, and they know what I’m capable of doing. That would be the only thing I would say helps me out.”
This preseason, he showed a glimpse of where he left off in his career year in 2006, registering two tackles and a sack in three games while showing a good ability to get toward the quarterback.
Banta-Cain won’t head into the regular season as a starter, but he’ll get plenty of chances to contribute. After the departures of Vrabel, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and defensive lineman Richard Seymour, the Patriots figure to dig deeply into their depth chart on a regular basis.
“Tully has matured as a football player,” said Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who also worked as the team’s linebackers coach during Banta-Cain’s first stint with New England. “I think he worked hard here in the offseason. He came back in good shape. I think he’s improved. Like any player, the more you’re around them, and the more you’re around you and the more they’re around the scheme, I think the more they learn and the more they know. I’m glad that he came back. I feel good that he’s here, and I think he’s been working hard and has improved.”