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The Patriots and their continuing search for coverage linebackers

04.09.13 at 1:37 pm ET
By
Dane Fletcher

Dane Fletcher

The Patriots have been looking for coverage linebackers for the last year-plus. Veteran Bobby Carpenter had a brief audition last season but didn’t click. Jeff Tarpinian has been on and off the roster the last couple of years, and while Rob Ninkovich can still drop into coverage — he has four career picks — he’s transitioned more into a pass-rusher at this point in his career.

While Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have shown an ability to run with tight ends and running backs in coverage the last few years, the Patriots still could use a linebacker who could work in coverage in space, specifically in nickel packages on passing downs. (Going back and rewatching the AFC title game, while the injury to cornerback Aqib Talib affected New England’s pass defense, it’s clear the Patriots also struggled to defend the middle of the field against the Ravens passing game.)

As prep work for the 2013 season begins this month, here are four possibilities for the Patriots to keep in mind when it comes to coverage linebackers.

1. One player who wasn’t available in 2012 but could provide a boost in 2013 is Dane Fletcher. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound linebacker went down with a season-ending knee injury in August, but in the past he has shown an occasional ability to be someone who could contribute on passing downs. At the end of the 2011, he fundamentally took over the coverage job that was held for a few seasons by Gary Guyton — he averaged more than half the defensive snaps played over the final four games of the 2011 regular season — and while he didn’t reinvent the position, he certainly showed enough to be considered when you’re talking about coverage linebackers in New England in 2013.

2. For what it’s worth, Spikes did improve over the course of the season — remarkably, he finished with seven passes defensed, although that could be because opposing offenses threw in his direction so much because they believed he was a liability in coverage. Regardless, seven passes defensed is pretty impressive, particularly when you consider the fact that he was tied for third on the team with starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. He is never going to be confused with Ty Law when it comes to working in pass defense, but if he continues to show improvement, he could become a legitimate three-down linebacker in 2013.

(One other thing to remember about Spikes — the linebacker is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and if he continues to trend upward — particularly when it comes to working in coverage — and stay healthy, he could end up costing the Patriots more money than they may have initially anticipated.)

While Mayo has consistently shown an ability to work well in coverage over the course of his career (he had three passes defensed and a pick in 2012), the one to really watch this year could be Hightower. Although he had his rookie moments, he did show enough over the course of his first season in the NFL that could lead you to believe that he can contribute on a regular basis. To that point, Pro Football Focus had him at +3.1 in pass coverage as a rookie — that was second-best among all New England linebackers in 2012, trailing only Mayo’s +5.6.

3. The Patriots will welcome Adrian Wilson in 2013. Wilson is not a linebacker but a bigger safety — the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder compares favorably to Fletcher in terms of his physical presence but always has been known for his coverage skills. Pro Football Focus gave Wilson a +2.6 when it came to pass coverage in 2012, which is down from a remarkable +15.4 in 2011. (It remains to be seen how much of the drop is due to age or scheme — Wilson wouldn’t talk much about the decline in his playing time in 2011 when he spoke with New England reporters soon after he was acquired last month.)

If the 33-year-old can still play on a regular basis, Wilson could fill the “money” position — a safety/linebacker hybrid that often takes over for a linebacker when the Patriots move into dime coverage.

4. Finally, the Patriots could always address the position in the draft. If they decided to go that route, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. identified a handful of his favorite coverage linebackers who will be available this year.

“I think an Arthur Brown with his instincts and just his feel for the game. … Khaseem Greene at Rutgers is another kid kind of in that Lavonte David-type of mold that can do a good job,” Kiper said. “Zaviar Gooden from Missouri can fly around the field, one of the fastest outside linebackers in this draft; Jelani Jenkins from Florida is another kid. Sean Porter from A&M, I think, showed the ability to get after the quarterback and play in reverse at Texas A&M, playing in two different schemes during his career. Those are some of the cover guys that I think can help you — Taylor Reed from SMU is another one who’s a late-rounder priority free agent.”

Read More: Adrian Wilson, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower
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