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Countdown to Camp: Running backs 07.23.13 at 9:56 pm ET
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Shane Vereen

Shane Vereen

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line, offensive line and tight ends. Now, it’s the running backs:

Depth chart: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount, James Develin, Leon Washington, George Winn, Ben Bartholomew.

Overview: It’s debatable whether or not it was young talent stepping to the forefront or the fact that opposing defenses spent more time worrying about the pass than the run, but the New England running game really emerged as a potent option for the Patriots last season. As the lead back, Ridley finished the season with 290 carries (he was 10 short of becoming the first New England running back since Corey Dillion in 2004 to break the 300-carry barrier) and 1,263 yards, while Danny Woodhead was the first Patriots running back to finish the season with at least 40 carries and 40 receptions since Kevin Faulk in 2008, while Bolden and Vereen shone nicely in complementary roles. With all the changes at wide receiver and tight end over the offseason, the running backs will be asked to replicate — and perhaps improve — on that performance in 2013. But before the new season begins, let’s take one last look back and acknowledge the work they did as a group in 2012, a year when there was real balance to the New England offense because of a very nice group of backs.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Ridley is one of the best backs in the game. Critics point to his occasional fumbles, but from a pure statistical perspective, Ridley did more than enough last year to be considered one of the best young backs in the game. At the age of 23, Ridley finished with 1,263 rushing yards — the only back in Patriots history who had a better season before the age of 24 was Curtis Martin, who had 1,487 rushing yards in 1995 at the age of 22. In addition, Ridley is only the 28th running back in the history of the game to gain at least 1,250 rushing yards in a single season before his 24th birthday, and last year came within 10 carries of joining exclusive company: backs who posted 300 carries and averaged at least four yards every carry (it’s a group that includes Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster). It figures to be his show again in 2013.

2. There will be a lot on Vereen’s plate this year. The shifty third-down option out of Cal showed great proficiency as a pass catcher as a collegian — he finished his college career with 74 receptions. In relatively limited reps over the course of the last two seasons, he provided real moments of brilliance in the passing game, with perhaps his finest moment coming in a Thanksgiving night win over the Jets when he connected with Brady on an 83-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. With both Wes Welker and Woodhead now gone, Vereen will almost certainly be in line for more reps and asked to fill the void. If he stays healthy, his versatility (he can line up split wide, as well as in the backfield) will provide a dynamic offensive element to the New England offense this season.

3. Of the guys at the back end of the depth chart, Winn has the most intriguing resume. He’s certainly a longshot to make the roster, but Winn was revealed as the most explosive running back in all of college football last year. The 5-foot-10 1/2, 218-pounder, who was signed and then waived by the Texans this spring (thanks in large part to a deep backfield in Houston that left the Texans with no other choice) had a slow first three years as a collegian but really busted out in 2012 as a senior with the Bearcats when he finished with 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns on 243 carries. But this story from Jon Moore of RotoViz went inside the numbers and came away with some remarkable stats on Winn’s work, saying he “might be the most explosive and underrated running back in the 2013 NFL draft” because of his ability to break off long runs. Moore notes that in Winn’s 13 games as a senior, he had 10 games where he finished with at least one rush of 18 yards or more (77 percent). That’s a better percentage than any of the other elite running backs who were a part of this year’s draft class, including Eddie Lacy or Montee Ball. Not sure if he’ll be able to make that translate to the next level, but on a team that prides itself on finding running backs in the most out of the way places, certainly the kind of player who will catch your eye.
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Countdown to Camp: Tight ends 07.22.13 at 10:39 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks, defensive line and offensive line. Now, it’s the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Ford.

Overview: In 12 months, this went from being the strongest, deepest position on the team to one with the most question marks. The Patriots enter the 2013 season without Aaron Hernandez, who was the most dynamic and versatile offensive presence on the roster. Meanwhile, Gronkowski underwent multiple offseason surgeries on his back and forearm, and his availability remains in doubt for the start of the 2013 season. That leaves a collection of tight ends who, while having spent some substantial time in the league over the last three seasons, don’t have nearly the resume of either Hernandez or Gronkowski. Fells, Ballard and Hoomanawanui all have experience in the system (Ballard was around in 2012 but spent the whole season on the bench because of a knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI), so there’s something to be said for the fact that they won’t have to spend much time getting up to speed in the system. Sudfeld opened some eyes this spring, but at this point it’s not realistic to count on much from him or Ford this year.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Much of the success of the New England passing game in 2013 will hinge on a healthy Gronkowski. Despite all the offseason losses, as well as the fact that they hit the reset button at the receiver position, if Gronkowski can be something resembling his old self down the stretch (like he was late in his record-breaking season of 2011), it could stabilize the passing game. The combination of Gronkowski, Ballard, receiver Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen (with Julian Edelman and one of the two rookie receivers providing depth) could provide quarterback Tom Brady with enough options in the passing game to restore some sense of order. Gronkowski demands attention when he’s on the field at all times, and that would open things up for the others. It wouldn’t be the same as it was when Hernandez and Wes Welker were around, but it’s better than nothing. Of course, it all hinges on a healthy Gronkowski. While New England will still feature itself a game-plan offense, fair or not, much of the success or failure of the passing game will fall on Gronkowski.

2. The Patriots are going to have to rely on Ballard for a stretch of the 2013 season. No one is quite sure what to expect from Ballard, who was on the shelf for all of 2012 with a knee injury he suffered when playing for the Giants against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The undrafted free agent out of Ohio State carved out a nice niche for himself in 2011 with New York, finishing the year with 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns (and adding five more receptions in the postseason). While he was on the field with the rest of the squad during spring practices, it appeared he was still working his way back, looking a little slow at times as he worked with Brady to pick up some of the nuances of the passing game. If Gronkowski is out for any period of time — and it’s expected he will start the regular season on PUP — look for Ballard to pick up some of Gronk’s reps. While he’s not an exact replica, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard might be the closest thing the Patriots have to a Plan B when it comes to holding things over until Gronkowski is at 100 percent.

3. The Patriots have gotten used to playing without Hernandez and Gronkowski. I’ll give you that this is strictly glass-is-half-full stuff we’re presenting here — and it should be taken with a grain of salt because Welker was still on the roster — but New England got a look at what life without the duo was like for a good portion of last season. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were banged up pretty much from start to finish last year, with Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals. (He ultimately missed six-plus games.) Meanwhile, Gronkowski suffered a broken arm on Nov. 18 against the Colts and missed five weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played just 573 offensive snaps in 2012, barely more than the 514 snaps he played as a rookie in 2010. As for Gronkowski, he played 743 offensive snaps in 2012, the lowest total in his three seasons in the league. The decreased snaps led to a dramatic change in targets from 2011 to 2012. The Patriots tight ends had a combined 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011. In 2012, that dipped to 116 catches on 182 targets.
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Countdown to Camp: Offensive line at 7:45 am ET
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Logan Mankins

Logan Mankins

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and defensive line. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Kevin Haslam, Josh Kline, R.J. Mattes, Chris McDonald, Nick McDonald, Matt Stankiewitch, Will Svitek, Marcus Zusevics.

Overview: No position on the team went from more of a state of flux to rock solid dependability last year than the offensive line. Dan Koppen and Brian Waters (and his locker) were gone, and while the Patriots kicked the tires on a few vets like Robert Gallery, their roles were ultimately filled by Wendell and Connolly. And a season that started with injury-related questions about Mankins and Vollmer were pretty much dispelled. As a group, they started 11 games together in 2012 (including the postseason) and held up remarkably well as a unit. While there are a handful of intriguing new faces on the roster (including Svitek and Chris McDonald) and a talented young backup (Cannon), the quintet of Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly and Vollmer should be slotted in as the starting offensive line in 2013.

Three Things We Know:

1. While the center is usually accorded as the leader of the offensive line and the left tackle is the one that gets the most pub, it’s the left guard who is in charge in Foxboro. No one on that offensive line says “boo” unless Mankins says so. And while he’s occasionally been accused of playing until the “echo of the whistle” (according to quarterback Tom Brady) and erring on the side of being too physical, there’s no doubt that he sets the tone for the offensive line. He opens his ninth season in New England and will be gunning for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl spot and sixth of his career. He missed six games last season (a career high for games lost because of injury; his previous high was one), but the 31-year-old figures to be at his familiar left guard spot when camp convenes later this month.

2. If this group stays healthy, none of the backups will play significant snaps this season. Continuity and consistency are hallmarks of any successful offensive line, and the fact that this group made 11 starts together last season allowed them to really come together as a unit. While there were some hiccups about two-thirds of the way through the season, the group finished on a solid note, and were one of the big reasons the New England offense was able to have the level of success it enjoyed last year.

3. Brady is occasionally his own best offensive lineman. Even at the age of 35 — he’ll be 36 next month — the quarterback has tremendous pocket awareness. And while he’s never been especially fast, he has the ability to keep plays alive with his feet on a consistent basis just because he’s so good at determining the situation around him. In 2012, three favorite moments of Brady being able to sense the rush and adjust accordingly came in a September win over the Bills in Buffalo. In that game, there were three separate occasions where Brady looked off his first read, assessed the myriad of other options that were presented to him, made the necessary adjustments by moving ever-so-gradually from one spot to another one, and simply showed the requisite patience, trusting his receivers until something positive developed. The first two came on pass plays — one to Rob Gronkowski that eventually was broken up and another to Danny Woodhead that went for a 17-yard touchdown pass — and the third on his 4-yard scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter. A good offensive line helps, but it also helps to have a smart, aware and patient quarterback under center.

Three Questions
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Countdown to Camp: Defensive line 07.20.13 at 11:41 pm ET
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Vince Wilfork

Vince Wilfork

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. Now, we take a look at the big dudes on the defensive line.

Depth chart: Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Armond Armstead, Jason Vega, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Marcus Benard, Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, Michael Buchanan, Marcus Forston, Justin Francis, Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano.

Overview: When the group was healthy, the Patriots were able to get good, sustained play from three-quarters of their four-man defensive front last season. Vince Wilfork is well on his way to sparking a debate about his Hall of Fame credentials, while Jones started the year with a bang and Ninkovich was as steady as they come as an end-of-the-line rusher and overall defender. Those three figure to get the bulk of the snaps this season, while a handful of others — namely, newcomers Kelly and Armstead — fight it out for the other defensive line spot. Youngsters like Bequette and Vega will provide depth at defensive end. Two intriguing options are Cunningham, who showed more defensive versatility over the last year, occasionally moving inside, and Francis, who gained some valuable experience last season but likely figures as a depth option to start the 2013 season. The rest of the group is mostly younger players who will provide depth and special teams value (some of them on the practice squad) this season.

Three Things We Know:

1. Wilfork is the most important defensive player on the roster. If you get caught up in numbers, you lose sight of the greatness that is Wilfork. Instead of being asked to penetrate and bring down the quarterback, more often than not, he’s the one who has been asked to plug things up and occupy two and three blockers at a time so that teammates like Ninkovich, Jones, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes can make plays in individual one-on-one situations. It goes without saying that Wilfork has been the centerpiece of the New England defense the last five seasons, and that figures to be the case again this season. The big defensive lineman — who continued to show versatility, durability and leadership in 2012 — is one of the best players in the league. After the departure of Paul Pierce, some local sports fans were speculating that Dustin Pedroia could be the next great local athlete to spend his entire career in New England. That does a disservice to Wilfork, as his continued excellence has earned the 31-year-old the right to be included in any discussion when you are talking about the great local professional athletes of the 21st century.

2. Ninkovich isn’t too far behind. In retrospect, the addition of Ninkovich — as a street free agent signed during training camp in the summer of 2009 — might go down as one of the most underrated signings of the Bill Belichick Era. Smart, tough and versatile, Ninkovich can play standing up or with his hand in the dirt. He can rush the passer or drop into coverage (he was one of two defenders who had at least six sacks and two picks in 2011 — the other was Terrell Suggs, who was named Defensive Player of the Year that season). Last season, he and Jones were able to flip sides on occasion, and according to NFL gamebooks, Ninkovich was still able to lead the team in quarterback hits (12) and sacks (8.5), and added five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries to go along with it. (For what it’s worth, he’s entering the final year of a two-year deal he signed in 2011, and is a relative bargain at $1.4 million a year)

3. They have a lot of defensive lineman on the roster. Technically, some of the players listed on the above depth chart (like Ninkovich, Buchanan and, to a lesser extent, Cunningham) could be classified as linebackers. But that still leaves them with a lot of depth at the position, particularly when you consider the cases of Canadian exports like Armstead and Vega. However, there is some versatility with several of the younger players, as seven of them (Armstead, Bequette, Buchanan, Forston, Grissom, Vega and Vellano) have practice squad eligibility. That’s not to suggest that all of them would be able to make it through waivers, but there are some options with some of the younger linemen.

Three Questions
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Countdown to Camp: Cornerbacks 07.19.13 at 11:32 pm ET
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Aqib Talib

Aqib Talib

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers and safeties. Now, it’s the cornerbacks:

Depth chart: Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Marquice Cole, Brandon Jones, Stephon Morris, Logan Ryan.

Overview: The Patriots got a boost midway through the 2012 season when they acquired Aqib Talib from the Bucs, and while Talib wasn’t a world-class cover corner, the move allowed them to shuffle a few bodies around and play to the strengths of the defensive backs they already had on the roster. As a result, the pass defense numbers improved across the board over the course of the 2012 season. With Talib signing a one-year deal to return for 2013 — and providing that Dennard will be around for at least a sizable portion of the season, providing he steers clear of off-field troubles — the combo of Talib and Dennard on the outside and Arrington in the slot is a good starting point for this group of corners. Meanwhile, Dowling enters his third season in the league as a question mark — his health has derailed two decent starts. Cole has positive special teams value, while Ryan and Morris will likely start the season competing to provide depth and assistance on special teams.

Three Things We Know:

1. This group improved as the season went on. Much of it was due to the arrival of Talib, but going back and rewatching film of the 2012 season, it was easy to see Dennard’s evolution into a fully-formed NFL corner and that Arrington’s slightly more physical brand of play fit better in the slot than on the outside. No one preaches team defense more than the Patriots, but by any metric you want to use (passing yards allowed, points allowed, etc.), the pass defense improved over the course of the 2012 season, and a sizable portion of that was due to the play of the cornerbacks.

2. With this lineup, Arrington is better fit in the slot than he is outside. Arrington has been a solid contributor wherever he has played over the course of his career (he had seven picks and 15 passes defensed in 2011, mostly on the outside), but he really seemed to click when it came to playing in the slot last season. He doesn’t have high-end, elite speed or exceptional footwork, but he does a nice job closing on the ball, competitive, and is a good help defender. In this era of wide-open passing attacks, Arrington is a quality presence working against some of the better slot receivers in the league. (For what it’s worth, after he was kicked inside, he showed a real flair for getting his hands on the ball, finishing with eight passes defensed over the last eight games of the season. And not that this means a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but he’s pretty stout against the run — Pro Football Focus has him as the 17th-best corner in the league when it comes to run defense.)

3. There’s not a lot of room for error here, at least when it comes to competing with the best in the league. After Talib went down in the AFC title game, the lack of depth in the secondary — particularly at corner — was exposed. Cole was an integral on special teams last year, but the Patriots were forced to have him place significant snaps in the most important game of the season. Not an ideal situation. There’s no telling what sort of impact youngsters like Morris and Ryan could ultimately end up having, but at this point, it’s safe to say the Patriots need their best corners to stay healthy all year if they want to play deep into January.
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Countdown to Camp: Safeties 07.18.13 at 5:42 pm ET
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Devin McCourty

Devin McCourty

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/specialists, and broken down the linebackers. Now, it’s the safeties:

Depth chart: Devin McCourty, Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis.

Overview: This group of safeties — really, the secondary as a whole — improved as the year continued, moving into a personnel combo late in the season that saw a McCourty-Gregory duo on the back end. Part of the improvement was due to the acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, which allowed the Patriots to move McCourty to safety and create a domino effect throughout the rest of the defensive backfield and allowed the team to maximize the strengths of the rest of the players. The acquisition of Adrian Wilson (and the murky legal future of cornerback Alfonzo Dennard) will create some changes in 2013 for the safeties, but at this point, it’s a versatile, competitive group that has good depth.

Three Things We Know:

1. Versatility remains paramount. It’s not just an ability to play both safety spots, but throughout the secondary: McCourty has played both safety and corner in the NFL, while Gregory played both safety spots last season and has collegiate experience as a corner. Tavon Wilson played both corner and safety in college, and Adrian Wilson plays more like a linebacker than safety. All of that mixing and matching will likely come into play this year if the Patriots are forced to go without Dennard for a stretch (or if the team decides to let him go altogether). For what it’s worth, Gregory appeared more comfortable at the free safety spot last season, and if the Patriots were forced to shuffle McCourty back to corner to account for the loss of Dennard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a combo on Gregory (free) and Adrian Wilson (strong) at the safety spots, and Talib, McCourty and Kyle Arrington (slot) at corner.

2. Adrian Wilson might be the biggest defensive back in recent Patriots history. It’s difficult to explain how this translates, but people will be amazed when camp rolls around. He’s certainly one of the largest defensive backs in a New England uniform over the last dozen years. (In our memory, the only one who comes close to the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Wilson is the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Tebucky Jones.) While we have yet to see him in full pads running with tight ends and running backs, this spring, he certainly appears to be the type who can bring more of a thump to the safety position than New England has seen in recent years.

3. This group has a knack for being around the football. As a whole, the safeties showed a real skill when it came to being around the ball in 2012. Tavon Wilson had four picks in his first 10 games as a pro to go along with six passes defensed and a pair of fumble recoveries. Gregory had three interceptions, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries (including the gift that keeps on giving, the buttfumble). Meanwhile, McCourty had a team-high five picks (three at safety, including two late in the season where he baited the opposing quarterback into a throw down the middle of the field.) In addition, McCourty’s 13 passes defensed were also tops on the team, and he added three fumble recoveries.

Three Questions

1. Now that Dennard faces a murky future, what should the Patriots do with McCourty? McCourty’s versatility allows him to play both corner and safety, and when he’s along the back line, that means the corner combo includes Talib on one side, Dennard on the other and Kyle Arrington in the slot. But if Dennard is out for an extended stretch, the Patriots could move McCourty back to corner to try and cover for the loss of Dennard.

2. What’s a reasonable level of expectation for Harmon? Everyone scratched their heads when the Patriots took Harmon in the third round this spring (several draft experts had him going as a late-round pickup, or even undrafted), but the Rutgers product was All-Big East as a junior and senior. He started 13 games last year, and had one interception, seven pass break-ups, and 50 tackles. Right now, he’ll be asked to provide depth, as well as some special teams value. But as we saw last year — when Ebner and Tavon Wilson were pressed into service early in the season — the Patriots aren’t shy about throwing young safeties into the fire early in their careers. Harmon remains one of the prospects worth watching this summer.

3. Can Tavon Wilson make the leap in his second season? As we discussed Wednesday with Dont’a Hightower, sometimes the biggest transition for a player isn’t necessarily going from college to rookie, but rookie to second year in the league. The same question pertains to Wilson, who was the best rookie safety on the roster last year. The 6-foot, 210-pounder out of Illinois started strong, with four interceptions in his first 10 games, as well as a 10-tackle performance in an October win over Denver, which certainly surpassed the expectations of many who initially called him a second-round reach. However, the acquisition of Talib affected his playing time maybe more than anyone else — the trade for Talib meant the Patriots moved McCourty from corner to safety, and left Wilson mostly on the sidelines. (Wilson was still part of an occasional rotation in sub packages, but his overall snap count drastically decreased. According to Pro Football Focus, in six of the first eight games, he played at least 41 defensive snaps. Over the second half of the season, he reached 30 defensive snaps just once.)

By the numbers: According to PFF, McCourty allowed just five receptions at safety in 2012, tied for the fifth-lowest total among all safeties. (Per PFF, McCourty also finished with 1,251 defensive snaps last season, the most on the team.)

Key new player: Wilson. The former Arizona defensive back — really, more of a linebacker than safety — brings an interesting dynamic to Foxboro. While there’s some question as to how much he has left in the tank, the 33-year-old has already been praised for his leadership skills, and could help mature a group of relatively young defensive backs. In the past, we have written about whether or not it’s fair to draw a line between Rodney Harrison (who arrived 10 years ago) and Wilson. At this point, it’s clear there are plenty of similarities — both are in-the-box safeties who arrived in Foxboro on the wrong side of 30, with a rep for big hits and solid locker room character but in desperate need of a professional jumpstart at a key point in their careers. Only time will tell if Wilson will follow the same successful career path as Harrison.

The skinny: While there’s some question as to how to best utilize McCourty (particularly if Dennard is out for any length of time), it appears that this safety group is a solid lot — if you include McCourty, this is arguably the deepest spots on defense for New England. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots build on the success they had down the stretch in 2012, as well as how they incorporate Adrian Wilson into the mix going forward.

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Countdown to Camp: Linebackers 07.17.13 at 2:29 pm ET
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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, Print  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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