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Cover me: LB James Anderson could bring new dimension to Patriots defense

06.12.14 at 5:28 pm ET
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FOXBORO — James Anderson — who was acquired as a free agent earlier this month by the Patriots — was given No. 55.

Digits aren’€™t usually that big a deal in the New England locker room. But it is worth mentioning that the guy who wore No. 55 the last four years — linebacker Brandon Spikes — had a trademark freewheeling style (both on and off the field) that’€™s hard to replicate. However, Spikes departed as a free agent this offseason, taking his electric playing style (and always interesting Twitter feed) to Buffalo.

And while Anderson has only been around Foxboro for a week, it’€™s clear the Patriots have decided to go in a completely different direction.

Both Anderson and Spikes middle/inside linebackers, but that’€™s where the similarities end. Anderson has only missed five regular-season games the last four years. Anderson carved out a niche as a relatively quiet and respected veteran who has worked as a mentor for several young players over the years with the Panthers and Bears. And he’€™s established a rep as a coverage linebacker who still has the wheels to keep up with a tight end or running back in the passing game.

The 30-year-old, who will be heading into his ninth season in the NFL, has played in 110 NFL games with 69 starts and has registered 556 total tackles, 12 sacks, three interceptions, 23 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. Last season in Chicago, he started all 16 games and finished with 102 total tackles and four sacks.

Still, he acknowledges he’€™s starting from scratch in New England.

“€œEverything is still new — still learning the defense, still learning about the guys around me,”€ Anderson said after Thursday’€™s OTA session outside Gillette Stadium. “Trying to work in as much as I can so when the season comes, wherever they tell me I need to be, I’€™ll give it everything I have.

“€œI feel like I’€™m picking it up pretty good. The coaches have done a great job of breaking things down and explaining it to me. I’€™m just taking it day-by-day.”€

The Patriots have been lacking a coverage linebacker the last few seasons, and if he’€™s able to pick up the scheme, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Anderson could fill that role, working alongside a cadre of linebackers that includes Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’€™a Hightower.

“€œAs you know, looking at my size, I’€™m a little bit smaller than most of the other guys around here,”€ Anderson said Thursday. “€œSo to make up for that, I’€™m pretty fast, and have to recover.”

Football has changed dramatically over the last decade or so — the evolution of the passing game has forced teams to invest more in defensive backs in hopes of slowing down elite quarterbacks and receivers. As a result, true coverage linebackers have become few and far between.

But Anderson doesn’€™t believe working as a coverage linebacker has become a dying art.

“€œI don’€™t think it’€™s a dying art — I think the offensive game is transitioning,”€ he said. “You’€™ve got tight ends who are now receivers. You have running backs who are at tight ends. The game is a little different, and you have to mold your defense to what they’€™re doing now.”

Anderson also has a rep as a highly respected locker room presence who has mentored many young linebackers over the course of his career, including Carolina’€™s Luke Kuechly, who said Anderson served as “€œa good role model”€ for a rookie looking to make his way in the league.

Anderson, a Virginia Tech product, said his attitude toward rookies is a simple one.

“œThat comes from just growing up, always being told that when you get an opportunity, to always give back to somebody else,”€ he said.

“€œThe bottom line is the better the worst guy is on the team, the better the team is. So it’€™s been my job to kind of help guys along. The better they are, the more they can push me.”

Despite his resume, it was an admittedly difficult offseason for Anderson — like many middle-class veterans, he sat through free agency waiting for the phone to ring. He spent some time out West, training in California while waiting on the next chapter of his NFL journey.

“€œI think you become anxious,”€ he said. “€œYou see free agency happen and you see guys get signed and you think, ‘€˜All right.’€ After a lithe while, I’€™m used to working out with a team, but I knew sooner or later that I was going to be playing, or I wasn’€™t.

“€œ[But] I had a workout here and things went well, and kind of had an idea that I’€™d have an opportunity to come here,”€ he added. “€œThey called and said ‘€˜We want to bring you in.’€™ So that was kind of how it all worked.”

To this point, he appears to be happy with where he ended up.

“€œI think it’€™s been great,”€ he said. “You can obviously see why these guys have won so much — the work they put in, the attention to detail. Just how they work overall. You can definitely see why they’€™ve won so many championships.

“€œ[But] it’€™s been great — those guys have been awesome. I think one of the hardest things is coming in as one of the oldest guys in the room and having to prove yourself to the guys that are here, because being on a new team, you have to earn your respect. I’€™m just trying to go out every day and trying to do that.”

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