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Countdown to camp: Linebackers 07.28.15 at 12:00 pm ET
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How will Jerod Mayo bounce back this season? (Jerome Davis/Getty Images)

How will Jerod Mayo bounce back this season after being placed on season-ending injured reserve each of the last two seasons? (Jerome Davis/Getty Images)

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the offensive side of the ball and now we’ve shifted to defense with the cornerbacks and safeties, now we take a look at the linebackers.

Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Jamie Collins (91 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions), Jerod Mayo (37 tackles, one sack), Dont’a Hightower (61 tackles, six sacks), Dane Fletcher (28 tackles), Darius Fleming (three tackles), Eric Martin (one tackle), Geneo Grissom (rookie), James Morris, Rufus Johnson, Jonathan Freeny (11 tackles, one sack.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. One of the best young linebacker group in the league. Names such as Collins, Hightower and Mayo definitely are attention grabbers as the group has the potential to be one of the best linebacker cores in the entire NFL. Collins is entering his third season, Hightower his fourth and while Mayo is entering his eighth, he’s 29 years old and hasn’t played a full season since 2012. Provided the group stays healthy, which it has had trouble doing, there’s no doubt they will be considered one of the best in the league.

2. Jamie Collins is a freak. There isn’t a more athletic linebacker in the entire NFL. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, the Southern Mississippi product can do things not many can, both on the field and off. (Check out this video he posted to Instagram of him doing back flips this offseason.) He has the quickness of someone playing in the secondary, but the strength of a defensive lineman. At just 25 years old, Collins will be a special player to watch over the next several seasons.

3. More pressure on group this season. With the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in the secondary, it seems like the Patriots will be putting more pressure on their front-seven than last year. Last season the secondary was able to take control of the opposition’s passing attack by shutting down wide receivers, but this year it might be a different story. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may need to create some pressure on the quarterback with blitzing more than he’s done in the past and with the linebackers the Patriots have, it will be something to monitor.

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Read More: Countdown to Camp, Dane Fletcher, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins
5 looming positional battles for Patriots 06.08.15 at 9:59 pm ET
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New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

New Patriot Travaris Cadet could have the inside track for the job of third-down back. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 2015 Patriots roster is starting to come into sharper focus, and as a result, there are some positional battles starting to take shape. With the understanding that there’s a lot of football left before the start of training camp at the end of July, here are four positions that bear watching as New England’s mandatory minicamp approaches later this month and camp begins in July.

Backup outside linebacker/defensive end: This spot demands some versatility in that defenders have to show an ability to not just get after the quarterback and set the edge, but also play over a tight end and drop into coverage from time to time. There are a bunch of different possibilities when it comes to working behind the likes of expected starters Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones that one of the candidates — Jake Bequette — has apparently spent some of the spring working at tight end in an attempt to get on the field. Opponent, situation and scheme will all play a sizable role as to who is on the field, and while free-agent pickup Jabaal Sheard probably shouldn’t necessarily be labeled as a backup, he will augment the work of Jones and Ninkovich. Sheard will lead a group that includes returnee Zach Moore (more of a defensive end/pass rush type than an outside linebacker, as well as rookies Trey Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Xzavier Dickson.

Backup inside/middle linebacker: The release of Brandon Spikes on Monday creates a void at the linebacker spot for New England. While Spikes wasn’t going to unseat any of the three long-term starters (Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower) for work as a three-down linebacker, his run-stuffing ability made him a good situational option on first and second downs. With Hightower’s offseason shoulder surgery leaving him a question mark when it comes to participating over the summer, the Patriots could still try and add someone at the spot. If not, the return of Dane Fletcher creates some depth at the position, and is likely the favorite to see the bulk of the playing time, at least at this point. In addition, James Morris (who was on the shelf all last season with a leg injury) will compete for reps alongside youngster Chris White and rookie Matt Wells.

Third-down back: The Patriots lost one of their most impressive offensive options to free agency this offseason, as Shane Vereen signed with the Giants. However, New England hasn’t been shy about turnover at this spot the last few years, as Kevin Faulk have way to Danny Woodhead, who yielded to Vereen. Now, it’ll be next man up here, and there are plenty of possibilities. The Patriots acquired Travaris Cadet in free agency — the 26-year-old had 38 catches last season out of the backfield with the Saints, and could be the early favorite to win the gig. Cadet will have his challengers, however, with one of them likely being second-year pro James White. White, who fundamentally took a redshirt year last season while sitting behind Vereen and the rest of the backs, has an impressive college resume at Wisconsin (he had 39 catches as a senior, and 73 total as a collegian), and certainly possesses the same sort of size and shiftiness as Vereen. While Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount have shown a willingness to catch passes out of the backfield, the wild card here is likely Tyler Gaffney, a 6-foot-1, 221-pounder who was swiped from the Panthers off waivers and spent the whole season on IR because of a knee issue. The Stanford product caught 27 passes his last two seasons at Stanford, and could be part of the conversation as the summer continues.

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Read More: Cameron Fleming, chandler jones, Dan Connolly, Dane Fletcher
Patriots announce signings of LB Dane Fletcher, WR Zach D’Orazio 05.26.15 at 4:26 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Tuesday afternoon they have signed linebacker Dane Fletcher and wide receiver Zach D’€™Orazio. Here’s a portion of the statement issued by the team on the moves:

Fletcher, 28, is a veteran of five NFL seasons with New England (2010-13) and Tampa Bay (2014). The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with New England out of Montana State on April 29, 2010. He signed with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent on March 16, 2014. Fletcher has played in 54 NFL games with 10 starts and has registered 101 total tackles, 4½ sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He has also added 41 special teams tackles, including a team-high 15 special teams tackles with the Patriots in 2013. He has played in six postseason games with one start for the Patriots, accumulating 14 total tackles. Last season in Tampa Bay, Fletcher played in all 16 games with four starts and finished with 30 total tackles and 10 special teams tackles.

D’Orazio, 23, was a two-year starter at Akron, appearing in 28 games at wide receiver and finished his career with 119 receptions for 1,422 yards and five touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder had his most productive season as a junior in 2014, registering 62 receptions for 658 yards and one touchdown. D’Orazio began his college career as a quarterback before switching to wide receiver in 2012.

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Read More: Dane Fletcher, Zach D’Orazio,
Source: LB Dane Fletcher returns to Patriots signing 1-year deal at 8:45 am ET
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Another former Patriots linebacker is back in New England.

After Brandon Spikes returned just over a week ago, Dane Fletcher has returned this week, as according to multiple reports Fletcher will sign a one-year deal and the free agent linebacker is present at Gillette Stadium for the start of OTAs.

[UPDATE: 9:45 a.m. – WEEI.com’s Christopher Price has confirmed Fletcher will sign a one-year deal.]

Fletcher played the first three years of his career with the Patriots, serving as a backup linebacker and a core special teamer. He signed with the Buccaneers last year as a free agent, playing in all 16 games and finishing with 39 tackles.

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With compensatory pick window closed, which remaining veteran free agents might fit with Patriots? 05.13.15 at 11:28 am ET
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Is there a chance Brandon Spikes finds his way back to Foxboro? (Getty Images)

Is there a chance Brandon Spikes finds his way back to Foxboro? (Getty Images)

Starting Wednesday, teams can sign existing free agents without having an effect on the compensatory pick formula for 2015. With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the status of some of available veteran free agents we initially detailed a few weeks ago who might make a good fit with the Patriots this spring. (With the possibility of a suspension for Tom Brady looming, we added one extra name to the mix.)

Colin McCarthy: The Patriots brought the 25-year-old linebacker in for a workout earlier this spring, and apparently had some level of interest in signing the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder, who played the last four years of his career with the Titans.

Brandon Spikes: The linebacker, who appeared to burn his bridges on the way out of town last offseason, reportedly had a sit-down with the Patriots earlier this month that could ultimately pave the way for his return to the New England linebacking corps. The 27-year-old, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder, would provide some thump in the middle against the run, as well as some depth if Dont’a Hightower is sidelined for an extended stretch with his shoulder issue.

Dane Fletcher: Another former New England linebacker currently without a home, the 28-year-old spent last season with the Bucs after four years with the Patriots. The 6-foot-2, 244-pounder is a versatile presence who also brings some special teams value to the table.

Matt Flynn: If the Patriots are without Tom Brady at the start of the season, this veteran could fit with New England in a pinch. Flynn, who will turn 30 next month, has played for the Packers, Seahawks, Bills and Raiders, and is likely the best available free-agent quarterback on the market. He had one of the finest games of his career against New England in 2010 at Gillette Stadium — with Aaron Rodgers on the shelf because of a concussion, he went 24-for-37 for 251 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in a 31-27 loss to the Patriots.

Red Bryant: The need for another defensive lineman was lessened with the selection of Malcom Brown in the first round of the 2015 draft, but the 30-year-old vet has been on New England’s radar screen for a few years now. The 6-foot-5, 328-pound defensive lineman came close to signing with the Patriots when he was a free agent in 2012, but ended up with the Seahawks. He’€™s not the elite-level defender he once was, but he’s durable (he’s played in 63 of a possible 64 regular-season games over the last four years) and is considered an excellent locker room presence.

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Colin McCarthy, Dane Fletcher, Matt Flynn
Free Agent Snapshot: Dane Fletcher 02.19.15 at 11:59 am ET
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Dane Fletcher (52) makes a tackle in the 2011 playoffs against Denver. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Dane Fletcher (52) makes a tackle during the 2011 playoffs against Denver. (Elsa/Getty Images)

When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that all of these guys aren’€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class — instead, they’€™re players we think would be a good fit in New England. We already featured C.J. Spiller,  Hakeem Nicks, Torrey Smith, Rahim Moore, Charles Clay, Jerry Hughes, Pernell McPhee and Orlando Franklin. Here is a look at inside linebacker and special teamer Dane Fletcher:

Dane Fletcher
Position: Inside linebacker
Age: 28, (turns 29 on Sept. 14)
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 244 pounds

The skinny: Fletcher is a very dependable, if not spectacular, linebacker who earned his keep in New England during his first four NFL seasons proving he can play many roles. In addition to his production on special teams, he caught the eye of Bill Belichick by showing he could make the rare transition from interior defensive lineman to inside linebacker to help fill a need. How much did Belichick think of Fletcher? He compared him to Harry Carson and Tedy Bruschi as players who have made the rare transition.  After going undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft out of Montana State, Fletcher signed with the Patriots. Fletcher became one of two undrafted rookies to make the Patriots opening day roster. After being inactive for the first three games of the 2010 season, he made his NFL debut in Week 4 against the Dolphins. In Week 6, Fletcher saw his first considerable action on defense as a reserve against the Ravens. The next week against the Chargers, Fletcher forced his first career fumble. In Week 15, Fletcher’s late-fourth quarter sack of Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, the first of Fletcher’s career, helped thwart a Packers drive and preserve a Patriots win.

By the numbers: Fletcher finished his 2010 rookie season with 23 tackles and two sacks in 13 games played, all as a reserve. Played in a career high 15 games in 2013 with the Patriots, with one start, tallying 26 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble. He recorded a season-high 10 tackles against Denver in the Patriots’ come-from-behind 34-31 overtime win.

Why it would work: A Belichick favorite at the right price. Belichick could easily bring Fletcher back because he knows the player knows his system. After Belichick let Fletcher go to free agency last March, the linebacker signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal with Tampa Bay last year. Fletcher gained valuable experience in Lovie Smith‘s 4-3 scheme, which by Fletcher’s own admission was difficult to learn. Fletcher played in a 3-4 scheme for three years with the Patriots and proved versatile when the Patriots began employing some 4-3 looks. He served as the middle linebacker. The biggest factor here could be the potential losses of Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in free agency. The linebacker who helped make the game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line could leave for greener pastures via free agency. That would open up a spot for Fletcher to return. Both Ayers and Casillas could be categorized as outside linebackers but serve multiple roles in Belichick hybrid defenses, roles Fletcher might be able to serve.

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Read More: 2015 Free Agent Snapshot, Dane Fletcher, New England Patriots,
Resetting list of Patriots and their own free agents 04.09.14 at 1:04 pm ET
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With Matthew Mulligan agreeing to a deal with the Bears on Tuesday, here’s an updated look at the Patriots 2014 free agent class. If you’re scoring at home, of its 12 free agents, New England has retained four and lost five, while three remain on the market.

Long snapper Danny Aiken: Signed a one-year deal to return to New England.
Running back LeGarrette Blount: Signed a two-year deal with Pittsburgh.
Defensive end Andre Carter: Free agent, but has expressed an interest in returning.
Wide receiver Austin Collie: Free agent.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman: Signed a four-year contract to return to New England.
Linebacker Dane Fletcher: Signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay.
Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui: Signed a two-year deal to return to New England.
Tight end Matthew Mulligan: Singed a one-year deal with Chicago.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes: Signed a one-year deal with Buffalo.
Offensive lineman Will Svitek: Free agent.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: Signed a six-year deal with Denver.
Center Ryan Wendell: Signed a two-year deal to return to New England.

Read More: 2014 nfl free agency, Andre Carter, Aqib Talib, austin collie
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