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Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker

02.05.14 at 11:45 am ET
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With the Patriots done for the season, we’€™ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the roster stands. We’€™ve focused on special teams, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, offensive line and defensive line. Now, it’€™s the linebackers.

Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’€™Gared Davis, Dane Fletcher (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits), Dont’€™a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Brandon Spikes (134 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed) (Taylor Reed is on the practice squad.)

Overview: It was an eventful year for the linebackers. Considered one of the positional strengths for the Patriots, the linebacking corps lost veteran Mayo to a season-ending pectoral injury after just six games. In Mayo’€™s absence — and by his own admission — Hightower tried to do too much in hopes of replicating Mayo’€™s impact. As a result, he got outside his comfort zone and had to be benched as a result. He rebounded nicely and played very well down the stretch. Meanwhile, Collins showed steady improvement over the course of his rookie year, so much so that he was going wire to wire by the end of the season and into the playoffs. He still needs to continue to improve — he did about as well as could be expected in the AFC title game against Julius Thomas — but at this point he could become the coverage linebacker the Patriots have lacked for so many years. Fletcher (who is a free agent) did a nice job providing depth and working on special teams, while Beauharnais, Davis and White were mostly special teamers who also got their feet wet in 2013 with minimal playing time.

Then there’€™s Spikes. One of the best run-stoppers in the league, he was clearly hobbling near the end of the season on what appeared to be a bad knee, and he told Boston.com that he would need surgery as soon as the season was done. But the last University of Florida product in the New England locker room wasn’t around for the end of the year, as he was placed on season-ending IR down the stretch. (Some believe that it was a combination of the knee injury and the fact that he was late for a meeting one day late in the season because of the snow that caused the Patriots to put Spikes on IR.) Whatever the case may be, the pending free agent appears to have played his final game in Foxboro.

Ultimately, Mayo remains the centerpiece of the linebacking corps, and if he returns to full health by the start of the 2014 season, the Patriots can go into 2014 with a combination of Mayo, Hightower and Collins as their starters. That’€™s an impressive group with a versatile skill set.

Best moment: While it was clear Collins was coming on over the course of the regular season, his performance in the divisional round against the Colts was something of a revelation. For the first time in his professional career, the rookie played an entire game, going all 66 snaps at linebacker against Indy and coming away with one sack, six tackles (two for loss), two quarterback hits and a pair of quarterback hurries. He was all over the field, even working split out wide when matched in single coverage on Indy tight end Coby Fleener. A terrific night for the youngster.

Worst moment: The loss of Mayo.

By the numbers: 22 – Spikes had a career high with 22 total tackles in an Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati. It was the highest tackle total for a Patriots player since Mayo had 23 tackles vs. the Jets in 2008.

Money quote: “I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me. [But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.” — Hightower on Jan. 7, assessing his overall evolution as a linebacker over the course of the 2013 season

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
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