By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots are entering this year’s training camp with some very interesting positional competitions going on this year, among them, WR, DB, RB, LB, and DL We’ll take a look at the linebackers and give some thoughts on the players that they will keep and those others they may.
Linebackers on the roster as of July 1: Bobby Carpenter, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Dont’a Hightower, Niko Koutouvides, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Mike Rivera, Trevor Scott, Brandon Spikes, Jeff Tarpinian, Tracy White
The Patriots finally have the depth they’ve been looking for at the linebacker position, the team has a group of versatile linebackers that can play a traditional 3-4 base defense or any of the sub-packages they use.
While health was a problem last year, now with a better base group and healthy, the linebacker position can now be one of the strengths of the defense. The team lacked depth both inside and outside and addressed those concerns with veteran Trevor Scott and through the draft with Don’t’a Hightower. Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette will eventually play some OLB as well.
Mayo Remains Key-
Jerod Mayo is the only Patriots linebacker to ever record 100 or more tackles in his first four years on the team. He is signed through 2017 so he’s not going anywhere. The Patriots now, with the new pieces in place have the ability to move Mayo around a bit.
They may very well do that, Hightower, who can also move around a bit as well would be best suited to anchoring the middle next to Brandon Spikes at least initially. Hightower is big hitter who is a downhill style player and has the versatility that Bill Belichick loves. ILB or OLB in the base 3-4, he can play the SAM in the 4-3 look, can be a much better cover linebacker in the nickel packages than either Spikes or Mayo and can even put his hand down and rush from a DE position.
Brandon Spikes showed a glimpse of what his potential can be down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. He’s had his moments of being off the field with injuries and suspension the first two years to be a head scratcher at times, but once he got healthy for the stretch run, his play was immense.
Spikes plays downhill and is best suited to the 4-3, where he can make one read and fire into the play. He provides the mean, nasty, in-your-face presence in the middle of the defense and can be a big play-maker in the middle. The one thing this defense lacks since Rodney Harrison left is an intimidator. Spikes can fit that role to a tee. The most instinctive player among the Patriots linebackers, he and Hightower should immediately feed off one another. It all comes down to staying healthy.
Another player on the inside is Dane Fletcher who showed flashes until a thumb injury forced him out early last season. The thumb was one of those nagging type injuries that seemed to take forever to heal. With Hightower now on board, Fletcher is quite probably destined for depth only. But he can play a bit on the outside as well so he should not be written off.
One the outside, one player who continues to impress with overall play is Rob Ninkovich. The one-time long snapper has developed into a solid presence on the outside. Ninkovich has done a great job of setting the edge and has done well at rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage. He’ll provide the kind of veteran presence and solid play that they’ll need to turn things around.
Who plays the other OLB slot in the base 3-4 defense? Jermaine Cunningham seemed poised to make a big step last season but due to injuries and uninspired play, disappeared. The lack of an off-season had to have hurt but his play especially during camp seemed uninspired and slow. Cunningham played virtually none during the season save for a few snaps with the goal line defense lined up as a DL. Will he be lined up as DE this season or will he be back in the mix as an OLB? We’ll find out soon enough, but he’ll need to shine in August if he’s going to stick.
Trevor Scott was brought in and if completely healed now from his knee injury nearly two years ago, could thrive in the Patriots system. Scott had shown glimpses of his potential when he started out with the Raiders. Possessing good ability to rush the passer, he could be the guy who emerges this season on a revamped defense.
During mini-camps and OTAs the Patriots played him a lot at the old Willie McGinest “Elephant” position, maybe to see what he can do or perhaps get him ready to play the position this fall. He has the proto-typical size the team covets, 6’5, 260 lbs at the position. He has the length to disrupt the passing game and the size to set the edge in the running game.
Scott, if he can emerge will give the younger edge players, Jones and Bequette time to develop without getting thrown into the mix. He will be looked at, to provide some of the pass rushing capability with the loss of Mark Anderson and Andre Carter. He could be the next Mike Vrable who was let go and shined in New England with a fresh start. We’ll see…
Another interesting free agent pick up was OLB Bobby Carpenter, a former high round draft pick who has under-achieved so far in his NFL career. Belichick likes his versatility and his football knowledge. A good special teams player, Carpenter is unlikely to supplant Tracy White in that role however, so if Carpenter does stick it may be at the expense of Jeff Tarpinian or Niko Koutouvides . Carpenter is better in coverage than either White or Tarpinian and can use good speed to rush occasionally from the edge.
Depending upon how the Patriots decide to go with the roster, Carpenter, White, Tarpinian and Koutouvides may be competing for a single roster spot. So watch all four closely especially in the special teams drills.
One thing that stands out this season is that, at least on paper this is a much deeper group of linebackers than the Patriots have had in a while. With the influx of rookies along the DL that can also step up and play linebacker, Bill Belichick and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia have to like the flexibility and options at their disposal. It will be an interesting chess match to see how they plan on utilizing them against opponents.
Injuries are bound to take their toll as they do every year, but it seems like the team has enough parts to make a significant improvement over where they were last year. The competition at camp should be wide open and fun to watch.
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