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Countdown to Camp: Linebackers

07.17.13 at 2:29 pm ET
By
Jerod Mayo

Jerod Mayo

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We started with a look at the special teamers and specialists. Now, it’s the linebackers.

Depth chart: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais, A.J. Edds, Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, Jeff Tarpinian.

Overview: The Patriots have made considerable strides over the last few years getting younger at linebacker, and as a result, they have built an impressive nucleus at the position, particularly with the Mayo-Hightower-Spikes combo. Mayo has emerged as a true leader and one of the steadier and more consistent players in the league, while Hightower will be asked to make the leap after showing flashes of brilliance as a rookie. As for Spikes — who is going into a contract year — he’s already one of the most feared run-stuffers in the league but is looking to become more proficient in coverage. Expect Collins and Fletcher to work primarily as backups. Both could see time as coverage linebackers, if they show an ability in pass defense. (Their playing time might hinge on Spikes’ ability to stay on the field on passing downs.) The rest of the group should provide depth, as well as special teams value.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Jerod Mayo is the second-most important defender on the team, and one of the best middle/inside linebackers in the league. Vince Wilfork still is the most important defensive player on the roster — and closing in on a possible Hall of Fame career — but the 27-year-old Mayo isn’t far behind. His football IQ, skill set, pain threshold (his teammates speak of his ability to overcome injury in awe — he’s missed just four games in five years) versatility (he can play all three linebacker spots in the 4-3) and relentless pursuit to the ball make him invaluable to the New England defense. The man is a tackling machine, and not in the “pile-jumper” sense — he’s finished with at least 95 tackles in each of his five seasons, and finished the 2012 season with 147 tackles (fourth in the league) to go with a career-best four forced fumbles and three sacks. When Wilfork eventually decides to hang ‘em up, this will be Mayo’s defense.

2. New safety Adrian Wilson is more of a linebacker than defensive back. Acquired as a free agent, Wilson stands 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. (Physically, he actually compares favorably to the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Fletcher.) Our friends at PFF 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 — some believe the dropoff was because Wilson hit a wall, while others believe he wasn’t be utilized properly with the Cardinals. Ultimately, if the 33-year-old proves he 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.

3. One linebacker will make the 53-man roster because of his special teams skills. As we explained with the special teamers, the Patriots will keep at least one linebacker around for depth, as well as special teams value. In years past, that job has been filled by Fletcher, Koutouvides, Rivera and Tracy White. This time around there’s a handful of possibilities, including Tarpinian and Edds (who both have had stopovers in Foxboro before), as well as Beauharnais, a no-nonsense rookie taken in the seventh round out of Rutgers.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Spikes be a three-down linebacker? Spikes is universally accorded as one of the best run defenders in the league, and he showed great improvement last year when it came to working in pass coverage. Somehow, he finished the 2012 season with seven passes defensed, although as we have said previously, 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. If Spikes can stay on the field on passing downs, it will have a considerable impact across the board on the New England defense.

2. Can Fletcher bounce back from a year on the shelf? Fletcher spent all of 2012 on the sideline after going down with a knee injury in the preseason. When healthy, the Montana State product does a nice job offering depth on the inside, but in the past Fletcher 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.

3. Can Hightower make the leap from Year 1 to year 2? Belichick has said on several occasions that the biggest transition for a player isn’t so much the move from collegian to rookie year, but going from his first to his second year in the league. Everyone now knows who you are, and you’re not sneaking up on anybody. Hightower certainly showed flashes of potential greatness in his first season, and because of his versatility likely was asked to do more than your average rookie. But in 2013 he has to make the move from rookie to dependable and consistent veteran. He’s one of the players who bears watching closely this summer to see if he can make that transition.

By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, Jerod Mayo was second on the team in defensive snaps played last season with 1,226 snaps. (Mayo trailed only defensive back Devin McCourty, who had 1,251.)

Key new player: Jamie Collins. The rookie out of Southern Mississippi who was taken 52nd overall has freakish athletic skills, and his college coach believes he could step in and become a coverage linebacker in the NFL. (He started his college career as a safety.) As previously stated, much of his playing time could be tied to Spikes — if Spikes can stay on the field on passing downs, the Patriots might have to find something else for Collins to do. The good thing? The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder previously shown enough versatility where he might be able to handle that role. In the end, that versatility is a big part of what attracted the Patriots to him. Belichick noted this spring that he could follow the same path as the similarly versatile Hightower last season by simply throwing him out there and seeing what he’s best at.

The skinny: While there was plenty of drama on the rest of the roster, the linebackers were steady this offseason, which is good news for the Patriots defense. While Wilfork remains the centerpiece of the New England defense, this group will form an absolutely key part of the Patriots in 2013, and if one of the players can emerge as a serious contributor in coverage, the linebackers certainly should be able to build on a successful stretch run in 2012.

Read More: Countdown to Camp, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo,
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