By: Steve Balestrieri
Jamie Collins, here in the 2013 playoffs will be looked at to take on a much larger role for the Patriots in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)
Much of the talk this off-season concerning the New England Patriots defense has centered on either the signing of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner or the defensive line with so many key pieces returning from injury. However, the linebacker core, which is such a key to the front seven, has received scant attention. While depth behind the starters is still a bit thin, this unit is going to be a key to the defense’s success in 2014.
The unit suffered two key losses this off-season but the return of Jerod Mayo from injury, plus some free agent signings, has put the team in a much better position than they were back in February.
Gone are both Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, who signed free agent contracts respectively in Buffalo and Tampa Bay. Spikes was an intimidator in the running game as a tough, physical, down-hill player who brought a bit of needed edge to the defense. Fletcher was an underrated sub that could cover runners out of the backfield or tight ends across the middle.
But Mayo is back from a torn pectoral injury and by all accounts is fully involved in all of the OTAs and should be ready to go once training camp starts. His return will be a big boost to the defense. Mayo was the signal caller and the best overall linebacker on the team and should hold down WILL or weak-side linebacker position this season.
Spikes’ position in the middle (MLB) will fall to Dont’a Hightower, who will slide over from the outside. Hightower is big (6’3,270) and physical enough to replace the departed Spikes in the running game and is a better player in coverage. His primary backup will be second year Rutgers MLB Steve Beauharnais, who basically had a red-shirt rookie season but has been reported to be much more comfortable in the defense this season. He was taking on a leadership role and barking out assignments in OTAs earlier this month.
The strong side linebacker (SAM) will be taken over by 2nd year player Jamie Collins, who started slowly last year but really came on down the stretch and looks to be a valuable, versatile piece for the defense to utilize. The uber-athletic Collins (6’3,250) is a converted safety who can drop into coverage seamlessly or get after the quarterback. With his speed, it won’t be a stretch to think that Bill Belichick will utilize him more in certain packages blitzing off the edge in 2014.
The team recently signed free agent linebacker James Anderson from the Chicago Bears. In 2013 he started all 16 games and finished with 102 tackles and four sacks. Anderson projects to be a valuable member of the team in sub-packages, which the Patriots played in nearly 67 percent of total defensive snaps in 2013. He should more than replace the departed Fletcher in terms of coverage.
Many Patriots fans have asked, “why did the Bears let Anderson walk?” and it bears a closer look. The best answer is to look at the tape. While Anderson is very good in coverage, he struggles somewhat against the run. And at age 30, the Bears decided to go younger at linebacker. He wasn’t brought in to be a starter but will serve on a rotational basis that plays better to his strengths.
Anderson’s prowess in coverage could also factor in some interesting positional possibilities as in certain packages. The team could easily slide Collins down to DE to take advantage of his speed in rushing the passer, something he did as a “Bandit” in college.
In an emergency, the team could still slide DE Rob Ninkovich back to OLB as he played there for a couple of seasons before moving to defensive end.
Most of the other veteran linebackers in camp are special teams standouts such as Josh Hull, Chris White, Darius Fleming and Ja’Gared Davis. Fleming has some positional versatility as he can play OLB or DE.
The rookies signed to undrafted free agent contracts include, Cameron Gordon, Deontae Skinner and Taylor McCuller and all have their intriguing points about them. Gordon, like Collins last year, comes to the pros having played a variety of positions. He started as a WR, was switched to linebacker and even played some defensive end. He led the Michigan Wolverines in sacks last season with five.
He also projects to be a valuable special teams contributor, having played on all of Michigan’s ST units. With his athleticism, he could be a sleeper contributor to the defense.
Skinner played both OLB/ILB for Mississippi State as a three-year starter. While mainly an OLB for the Bulldogs, he is also a special teams performer who’ll be fighting for a roster spot. McCuller is an ILB who although a bit undersized at 6’1, 239lbs was a very productive run stuffer at West Texas A&M. An All-America (D2) choice in 2013, he racked up 152 tackles. He’s not fast, but very instinctive and productive and could be a dark horse to make the team as a backup.
While the Patriots linebacker core may still be a tad thin behind the starters, the addition of Anderson and some intriguing rookies leave the team in pretty good shape as OTAs come to an end this week. Mini-camp will tell a bit more as will training camp in July. This group will bear watching closely mainly behind the starting trio as to who steps up for a roster slot and playing time.
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