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Brandon Spikes: I’d be ‘shocked’ if Vince Wilfork isn’t with Patriots in 2014 03.07.14 at 1:35 pm ET
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Brandon Spikes, who likely has seen his career with the Patriots come to a close, said Friday morning that he’d be “shocked” if New England decides to cut ties with veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork this offseason.

Wilfork has been rumored to be a salary cap casualty because of his cap hit for the upcoming season, as well as the fact that he’s going to be coming back from an Achilles injury. But Spikes would be “shocked” if Wilfork isn’t with the Patriots in 2014.

“€œI haven’€™t spoken with him, but it definitely hurt me a lot to see him go down,” Spikes told NFL Network’s “NFL AM” on Friday. “He’€™s definitely a big factor in the inside and the run game — he does it all. He’€™s very disruptive like myself, but if he hits the free-agent [market], I’€™ll be shocked. The Patriots love him, the organization up there, Boston loves him. He’€™s been there for a while. Honestly I can’€™t see him leaving.”

Spikes reflected on the 2013 season, a year when New England suffered through an amazing run of injuries but still managed to make the AFC title game.

“We just fought through adversity and I think every great team has to overcome some things throughout the season,” Spikes said of the Patriots defense. “Even though we were young, a lot of new guys in and out, I think we did a great job just holding it together and just keep fighting.

“€œWe just had some guys that really cared, they wanted to step up,” he added. “I was devastated to have captains like [Jerod] Mayo and Vince go down, and guys were looking around [for] who [they were] going to look to and I think guys looked at me. I felt I played a big role in that, even though I was nicked, too. I was able to fight through that, and we just battled through adversity the entire time.’€
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Read More: Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork,
Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker 02.05.14 at 11:45 am ET
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Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)

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
For Dont’a Hightower, ‘everything is finally coming back into play’ 01.07.14 at 3:32 pm ET
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Dont'a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower

FOXBORO — Dont’a Hightower acknowledged Tuesday that he may have lost his focus earlier in the season, but the second-year linebacker is back to where he needs to be.

After the Patriots lost Jerod Mayo earlier in the year to a season-ending injury, Hightower’s role expanded, and he admitted he tried to do too much to try and make up for the losses in personnel.

“I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me,” he said Tuesday after practice. “[But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.”

The key is finding a balance between the Bill Belichick mantra of “Do your job,” and a natural inclination to try and overextend yourself in an attempt to become a playmaker.

Hightower said Tuesday that the solution is simple.

“Do your job. The big plays will come to you if you do your job,” he said. “I don’t need to make a tremendous catch — I just need to do my job. Everybody is lined up and everybody has the right communication, after that, the playmakers will make plays.”

As the Patriots continue their prep work for Saturday’s divisional playoff contest with the Colts, Hightower figures to play a sizable role for New England for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’ll be asked to pick up a lot of the slack in the wake of the recent decision to place Brandon Spikes on season-ending injured reserve.

He says he’s ready.
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Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo,
Patriots defense not planning a pity party after losing Jerod Mayo 10.16.13 at 2:30 pm ET
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Dont'a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower

FOXBORO — Despite the fact that they’ve now lost two of their most indispensable defensive leaders in Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries, the Patriots’ defense isn’t going to spend a lot of time sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.

“I think the good thing here is that we have guys who prepare hard and as if they were starting,” said defensive back Devin McCourty, who is now the senior member of the New England defense in terms of games played in a Patriots uniform. “Now, they get the opportunity. Everywhere outside this locker room, guys will be talking about our loss. I think we have some guys in here who are excited about their opportunity. It sucks, because you never want to lose a player, but there are some guys who are excited to get out there and play more.”

Mayo was the acknowledged leader of the linebackers, but with him on the shelf for the rest of the season, some of those leadership responsibilities will shift to second-year Dont’a Hightower. He will likely be the one with the green dot on the back of his helmet — the player with the responsibility of receiving the defensive plays calls from the sideline and relaying them to his teammates. It’s a sizable responsibility, one Hightower takes seriously.

“I look forward to it,” he said after practice on Wednesday. “I talked to [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia], I talked to [linebackers coach Pepper Johnson] about it, so it’s definitely something that I knew down the road that if something ever happened, I knew that I would have to step up and do it. I’m not nervous about it, it’s something that I’ve done before — maybe not in the NFL, but I’ve done it before, so everybody’s behind me and they support me, so it’s all I can ask for.”

One of the interesting things is that both Mayo and Wilfork are defensive captains, and have been powerful voices when it comes to providing leadership in the locker room. Now, it’ll be on a variety of players to step up and offer guidance.

“For me, I think of it as Mayo and Vince are still our captains, and just stepping in and filling a title or a role, but just to keep doing what I’ve been doing. Keep being a leader on the defense,’ McCourty said. “To me, those two will be the captains — they were voted captains earlier this season. My job now is when guys get hurt and they can’t be around, guys have to step up. I’ve been appointed one of those guys to step up, but it’s no different — guys on defense have to step up. Guys like Steve Gregory, who has played a lot of football here already. [Brandon] Spikes, a guy who is a fourth year player as well. We all have to step up and kind of be group captains now. You can’t replace two guys who have already been voted captains.”

“We [lost] a bunch of key guys, with Vince and Mayo and [Tommy Kelly] and all the other guys that are banged up,” Hightower said. “But it’s football. It’s all expected — one guy down, another guy comes up. I feel like everybody that’s here is going to help us win. As long as we communicate and execute the game plan, we’ll be fine.”

Read More: Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork
Patriots practice Wednesday: Aqib Talib, Danny Amendola among five absent at 11:02 am ET
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Aqib Talib was absent from practice Wednesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

Aqib Talib was absent from practice Wednesday in Foxboro. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

FOXBORO — The Patriots returned to practice on Wednesday in sweats and shells and had a season-high five players absent.

Leading the group were cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Also not in attendance were offensive lineman Dan Connolly, running back Leon Washington and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.

Washington and Kelly missed all of last week, including the game against the Saints, with ankle and knee injuries, respectively. As for the other three, Talib injured his hip in the second half, came back briefly before leaving for good. Amendola was hit in the head by Saints defensive back Rafael Bush in the second half and Connolly suffered a head injury and did not return. Connolly’s injury occurred in the first half.

The five absentees don’t include linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Mayo had surgery this week on the injury sustained in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Saints.

Read More: Aqib Talib, Dan Connolly, Danny Amendola, Jerod Mayo
Patriots place Jerod Mayo on season-ending injured reserve, re-sign Andre Neblett at 9:52 am ET
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Jerod Mayo

Jerod Mayo

FOXBORO — Jerod Mayo has played his last snap of the season for the Patriots.

Bill Belichick addressed the injury on Wednesday.

“It’s a medical decision,” Belichick said. “He does a lot for us.”

The loss of Mayo as captain means the Patriots will be playing without their two captains on defense. Belichick was asked if there’s a chance he could be replaced.

“If we think that it’s the best thing to do, that’s what we’ll do,” Belichick said.

The Patriots placed the linebacker on injured reserve following surgery on his torn pectoral muscle this week.

Mayo injured the muscle on a tackle of Darren Sproles in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Saints. On the play before New Orleans’ go-ahead touchdown, Sproles came over the middle and was crushed by Mayo and teammate Steve Gregory. Both players laid on the ground for several minutes and Mayo immediately grabbed for his right shoulder and chest area before making his way off the field under his own power.

He did not return. Mayo had played in all but eight of New England’s 399 defensive snaps for the Patriots this season before missing the final seven of the game on Sunday. Mayo didn’t miss a snap against the Bills, Jets, Falcons and Bengals.

The news of Mayo’s surgery comes two weeks after Vince Wilfork had season-ending surgery on his torn right Achilles.

To replace Mayo’s spot on the roster, the team re-signed Andre Neblett and signed cornerback Travis Howard.

Neblett, 25, was signed by the Patriots last Wednesday and released three days later to make room for defensive lineman Marcus Forston. He is a veteran of three NFL seasons with the Panthers after joining Carolina as a rookie free agent out of Temple in in 2010. The 6-foot, 310-pounder signed with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent on May 6 but was released by the Buccaneers on Aug. 31. Neblett played in 30 games with seven starts during his three seasons with the Panthers and registered 28 total tackles, three sacks and two fumble recoveries. Last season, he played in 11 games with two starts and recorded 11 tackles and a half-sack.

Howard, 23, was originally signed by the Texans as a rookie free agent out of Ohio State on May 10. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder was released by Houston on Aug. 27. He started every game as a junior and senior at Ohio State and totaled 81 tackles, six interceptions and 11 passes defensed during that time.

Read More: Andre Neblett, Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots, nfl
Analysis: What does loss of Jerod Mayo mean for Patriots defense? 10.15.13 at 9:03 pm ET
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Will Brandon Spikes shoulder more of the load with Jerod Mayo out injured. (AP).

Will Brandon Spikes (55) shoulder more of the load with Jerod Mayo out injured? (AP).

The loss of Jerod Mayo for any extended period of time would be a substantial blow to a New England defense that is already dealing with the loss of veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, and would force Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to get even more creative when it comes to designing a defense.

Mayo isn’t the sort of elite level defender who gets mentioned in the same breath as other middle/inside linebackers like Patrick Willis, but his durability, consistency and leadership have proven invaluable to the Patriots defense since he arrived as a first-round pick in 2008. The Tennessee product is a tackle machine — he’s been at or near the top of the league in tackles since he was a rookie — but every good middle linebacker will pick up a ton of tackles. His value to the defense is measured in his durability (he’s missed just four of a possible 86 games over the course of his first five-plus years in the league, and has played in 399 of New England’s 407 defensive snaps this year before being injured — 98 percent), as well as his overall ability to do many things, and do them at a consistently high level.

He’s not considered an elite run-stopper, but is still consistently better than 75 percent of the rest of the league when it comes to run defense. He’s not the first choice when it comes to working as a coverage linebacker, but a glimpse at the film of his work over the last few weeks will tell you all you need to know about his ability when he’s matched up against running backs and the occasional tight end out of the backfield. And while he’s not the senior member of the defense — that honor still falls to Wilfork — there’s a reason he was named a captain in his second season in the league. He was the natural choice to wear the green dot on the back of his helmet at an early age, and the 27-year-old is wise beyond his years. He has consistently worked as a mentor for younger linebackers like Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher.

(In the context of this discussion it’s also worth mentioning that Mayo has a legendarily high pain threshold. When he injured his right knee in the 2009 opener against the Bills, teammates marveled at the fact that he returned as fast as he did. Mayo ended up missing three games, and still returned in time to lead the team in tackles. If there’s anyone who might try to push through and come back sooner than expected, it’s Mayo.)

Going forward, as previously stated, this will force the Patriots to try to get creative with some of their defensive schemes. When it comes to the linebacking corps, the bulk of the leadership duties will likely fall to Hightower, who has also shown some positional versatility in that he’s played on the inside and outside — that ability to play both spots could paper over some personnel deficiencies.

This also opens the door for more playing time for a pair of intriguing possibilities in Spikes and Collins. With the Patriots favoring nickel as their base defense through much of the first six games of the season, Spikes has been the odd man out more often than not. But going forward, the Patriots could put together a scheme that has Spikes in the middle — even thought he’s not as good in coverage as Mayo — as well as Hightower and either Collins or Fletcher. Collins could also see more time as a possibility working in coverage on passing downs, trying to replicate Mayo’s work as a pass defender.

As WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia reports, a source indicates that Mayo is out at least eight weeks but could return depending on the severity. If the tear was severe, then the linebacker is likely done for the season. The Patriots have multiple options with Mayo at this point: they could simply wait, see how he responds to treatment and rehab, and remain open to the possibility he could be back later in the season. Or they could place him on injured reserve, which would end his season. One thing to remember is that they have already used their short-term IR designation on running back Shane Vereen, who is eligible to return from a Week 1 wrist injury in Week 11.

Regardless of what the team decides to do, it’s a serious blow to the hopes of a team that has opened the year 5-1. On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots had been playing very well to start the 2013 season, better than most anyone had envisioned when the season began. But overcoming the loss of Wilfork and possibly Mayo — as well as the uncertain future facing Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly because of injuries they’ve suffered over the last two weeks — will serve as a colossal challenge to a unit that was just starting to come into its own.

Read More: Jerod Mayo,
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