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Key season looms for linebacker Brandon Spikes

07.27.13 at 2:05 pm ET

FOXBORO — No Patriot enters the 2013 season with greater boom-bust potential than Brandon Spikes.

Since he arrived as a second-round pick out of Florida in 2010, the wildly electric linebacker has shown flashes of true brilliance at the inside spot as a run stuffer — Pro Football Focus had him rated as New England’€™s top run defender in 2012 with an unbelievable grade of +17.5, best in the league among all inside linebackers against the run. Other than Vince Wilfork, there is no more feared tackler on the team than Spikes. Simply put, he has an edge that many New England defenders don’€™t possess.

But at the same time, by his own admission, he needs to work on his game if he wants to be considered one of the best in the league. He’€™s made advancements while working in coverage — he somehow came away with seven passes defensed last season. (It remains to be seen how much of that is his own advancements and how much of that is the result if quarterbacks recognizing he’€™s the weak link in coverage and targeting him.) PFF had him at -3.3 in coverage last year, second-worst on the team among regulars. As it stands right now, more often than not, he comes off the field on passing downs, yielding to another swifter linebacker or giving way to a defensive back so the team can downshift into nickel coverage.

The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder also totes more than his share of off-field baggage. His Twitter feed — which went silent this past offseason — is usually an unfiltered version of Spikes’€™ meetings with the media. (It’€™s landed him in hot water on more than one occasion.) He was suspended for violating the league’€™s policy on performance enhancers as a rookie. He raised some eyebrows in Foxboro when he was the only player on the roster who chose to take a pass on the voluntary workouts this past spring.

And he’€™s almost always interested in speaking the truth, and when you don’€™t have the resume of someone like Wilfork, that’€™s not always appreciated at Gillette. When he doesn’€™t get that chance, it doesn’€™t sit well with Spikes — witness the exchange he had with the media on Friday when he was asked about the Aaron Hernandez situation. In his first public comments since his former college teammate was charged with murder, Spikes all but had to cover his own mouth.

‘€œNo comment,’€ he said shortly after the end of the Patriots first training camp practice of the summer on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. ‘€œI can’€™t really comment. I want to, but I can’€™t.’€

All of this will likely make for a complicated decision for the Patriots at the end of the season when Spikes’€™ rookie contract is up. The Florida product, who will turn 26 before the start of the season, knows that he has to make strides in his game if he wants to get to that next level.

‘€œHonestly, I just focused on my strengths, but then again, I wanted to work on coverages and stuff like that,’€ he said when asked about his offseason. ‘€œJust getting better. Technique and fundamentals. Just all the small things. Just trying to critique my game and better my craft.’€

Last year, Spikes played in a career-best 15 games, and managed to stay mostly healthy for the entire season. The linebacker, who has struggled with knee issues in the past — it kept him sidelined for eight games in 2011 — said he’€™s coming into camp feeling good about where he is, both mentally and physically, and is looking forward to putting the pads on for the first time on Monday.

‘€œI feel great. To be out here, running around again, smell the pads, it feels good to be back,’€ he said. ‘€œLooking forward to these young guys getting in and learning the defense and trying to make some plays for us. Hopefully, we have a great season this year.

‘€œFor me, I look forward to putting the pads on and getting hit and hit a couple of guys. Welcome to the NFL. I get a kick out of it. That’€™s what I look forward to. Monday, I think, that’€™s when we get the pads on and we’€™re a full-go.’€

While he’€™s built a tidy resume — when healthy — over the course of his three seasons in the league, it stands to reason that the market for Spikes’€™ services will be ultimately be determined following the 2013 season. If he’€™s able to break through and become a three-down linebacker — while keeping that edge as a run-stopper — he could be in line for a sizable payday. Whether or not that payday comes from the Patriots is another matter entirely.

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