By: Steve Balestrieri
The Patriots begin training camp on July 25 with the first scheduled practice slated for 9 a.m. on July 26 at Foxboro. There are a lot of positions that will bear watching this camp and one of them will be a deep and versatile group at linebacker.
The Patriots have moved to get younger and more athletic at the position the past several years and the three starters Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are solid, especially against the run and will be looking to improve in pass coverage and blitzing off the edge.
With the Patriots looking to play a more hybrid defense this season switching between 4-3 and 3-4 looks, it is imperative to have linebackers who can play seamlessly between different looks and positions and this group is primed to do this very well.
Jerod Mayo is the unquestioned leader of the Patriots linebackers. (FILE:USPresswire)
LBs Roster: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jamie Collins (R),Dane Fletcher, Steve Beauharnais (R), A.J. Edds, Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera,Jeff Tarpinian.
Jerod Mayo- Mayo as he has been for his five seasons with the Patriots led the team in tackles with 147 good for 4th in the league. He also chipped in with three sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.Mayo is also one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense along with Vince Wilfork. He provides a solid presence on a unit that needs to step up big in 2013.
By adding veterans like Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson, look for Mayo to become even more of a QB for the defense as this unit blends youth and experience.
Mayo is versatile and can play either inside as ILB in a 3-4 or as a MLB or outside as the WLB in the 4-3 depending upon the defense called. He will look to improve his coverage skills this season, but is the best of the linebackers on the roster.
Brandon Spikes- Love him or hate him Spikes is a fun player to watch. He’s an exciting, downhill, aggressive player that brings a measure of physicality and intimidation that this defense has lacked.
Spikes makes up for a lack of straight line speed with a great instinctiveness that makes life difficult for opposing running backs trying to run between the tackles. Spikes had his best statistical season in 2012, racking up 92 tackles, five forced fumbles and a sack. He also was credited with seven passes defensed, surprising considering that given his dearth of speed he’s usually a liability in coverage.
Spikes is in a contract year and will be playing to get a big payday in 2014. But to do so he must prove to be a reliable three-down linebacker and not just a run stuffer. One interesting observation will be how the coaching staff treats his position on the field this season.
Always known for going to the beat of his own drummer, Spikes skipped the voluntary portion of the team’s organized activities and mini-camps this spring, instead working out in Florida trying to garner some extra quickness and getting in top shape.It will bear watching if, like with Wes Welker in 2012, the Patriots begin experimenting with other options at MLB/ILB to see what life is like if Spikes leaves via free agency.
Dont’a Hightower- A first round draft pick in 2012, Hightower had an impressive rookie campaign as the SLB. He tallied 60 tackles, four sacks, recovered two fumbles (one for a TD) and led the team with six tackles for a loss.
Hightower, who did it all at Alabama barely scratched the surface of his potential in 2012 and he says it is all a learning process. During an interview with NESN, Hightower said: “I learned a lot when I first came in. I learned a lot during, and even now. Learning just little smaller tricks. Things from Mayo. The linebacker corps as a whole, we’re all pretty close. We all work together. So we all take tips and tricks from everybody.”
Hightower will be looked to provide a big jump in play (like similar 2nd yr player Chandler Jones) in 2013. Bill Belichick likes to point out that a player’s biggest jump in production comes normally in his 2nd season. Hightower can play just about anywhere, SLB or MLB in a 4-3, ILB or OLB in a 3-4 and his flexibility just oozes with possibilities. Expect to see him blitz more this season as he becomes much more comfortable with the defense.
Jamie Collins- Collins is a physical specimen who will be intriguing to watch this summer. The Patriots first draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Collins was a high-school QB, turned safety, turned OLB and a Bandit DE pass rusher for Southern Mississippi.
With physical skills off the charts and being a former safety, Collins should immediately make his presence felt in sub-packages being able to cover TEs as well as rush the passer from the edge.As with any rookie, Belichick and the coaching staff will test him at camp and try to play to his strengths.
His best fit is at 3-4 OLB but he can play either SLB or WLB in a 4-3 look or with his hand in the dirt as a DE in a 4-3. Again, the versatility of these players makes the defense much better able to adapt and change on the fly.
Dane Fletcher- Fletcher is returning from a serious ACL injury suffered in training camp and was missed in sub-packages last season. Originally slotted as an OLB, he moved inside in 2011 and proved to be a solid back-up and spot starter, doing a good job of covering running backs out in the flat.
Fletcher, if completely healthy this season should be able to step in and help sub Spikes at MLB and at ILB in 3-4 defenses. Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston reported that Fletcher was moving at what appeared to be normal range of movement and speed during OTAs which is a great sign for both him and the team.
Steve Beauharnais- Beauharnais is another pick-up this season from Rutgers. Beauharnais is an upgrade in athleticism and quickness over the two players that he’ll probably be competing for a roster spot with in Koutouvides and Rivera.
He’s another player who can be versatile, playing either at back-up MLB or WLB in a 4-3 defense or an ILB in a 3-4, which he’d probably fit best in. He can cover TEs and will have to prove himself as a good STs player first if he’s to supplant either of those two. But he’s my sleeper for the linebacker core this summer.
Niko Koutouvides- Koutouvides is a savvy 10 year veteran who is more of a ST player than anything else. But he’s proven to be versatile and play anywhere in a pinch.He can play either at MLB or SLB in a 4-3 or ILB or OLB in a 3-4.
Even though he’s a proven STs contributor, age and improved athleticism added to the roster this spring put his roster position in doubt.
Mike Rivera- Rivera made the roster last season after Fletcher’s injury, was cut and then brought back later in the season. He made one start against the 49ers, but like Koutouvides is more of a ST player than a linebacker.
He can play either SLB or MLB in a 4-3 or at ILB in a 3-4, but his special teams play may ultimately decide his slot this season.
Jeff Tarpinian- Tarpinian suffered a pretty serious head injury in 2011 that limited his effectiveness last season. Like Rivera and Koutouvides he’s more special teams player than linebacker, but of the three he’s the most athletic.
Tarpinian can play MLB in a 4-3 and ILB in a 3-4 and will be in competition with them and Beauharnais for those depth positions at linebacker and special teams.
A.J. Edds- Edds has the ideal size that the Patriots have always sought with their outside linebackers at 6’4, 256 lbs. He is athletic and as pointed out by ESPN Boston’s Mike Rodak, he wasn’t healthy when he was signed in June so that generally means that the club has legitimate interest in his playing abilities.
Edds spent two games in 2011with the team before a knee injury placed him on IR. If he is completely healthy Edds can play WLB in a 4-3 or as an OLB in a 3-4.He’ll also be trying to make a name for himself with special teams play.
With training camp starting in a week, the starting three of Mayo, Spikes, Hightower along with top draft choice of Collins are locks for the roster. After that it comes down to health (Fletcher, Edds) and production.
Right now before the pads come on, I like Fletcher and Beauharnais to round out the top six LBs on the roster as we picked in our Roster Projection 2.0 after Mini-camps.
With the Patriots looking to and needing to make big strides on defense this season, the linebackers’ play which was solid last year, need to up their play and become dominant. They were already very proficient in stopping the run, now with more athletic pieces added to aid in pass coverage and better pass rushing potential with Collins and a year’s experience with Hightower, they may have just the right mix they need.