Patriots Training Camp Primer – Linebackers

Steve Balestrieri
July 17, 2015 at 06:17am ET

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The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be plenty of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53 man roster and who is on the bubble.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring is a learning exercise and that the competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 88 players on board, 35 of these current members of the roster now, at a minimum will be cut.

We’ve already looked at the Patriots offense and have now moved over to the defense. You can check out the links below:

Running Backs

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

Offensive Line

Quarterbacks

Defensive Ends

Defensive Tackles

Next up for the Patriots defense are the linebackers. There are currently 14 players on the roster competing for probably six slots. With the three starters basically locked into slots providing they’re healthy to start the season, the numbers game is making life difficult for these remaining players.

The one good thing about the situation is that with a renewed emphasis on the front seven and many of the players known strictly for their special teams acumen, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to carve out a role for themselves.

It isn’t known if the injuries/off-season surgeries to Hightower and Mayo will have them ready for training camp. If they aren’t ready to go on July 30, it just gives more reps to be divided up amongst the rest of the crew.

So who is locked in and who is on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo

Collins is rapidly becoming one of the best linebackers in the league. He can do it all; be stout against the run, cover tight ends or blitz up the A-gap. He’s so uber-athletic that there isn’t much he can’t do. Recently a video surfaced showing Collins doing eight back flips in a row (check out our video section). He does everything so well, that the team is probably still scratching the surface on his potential in his third season.

Hightower had a break-out season in 2014 and really came into his own once Mayo went down with a season-ending injury. With great size at 6’3, 270, Hightower is very good at stuffing the run and like Collins is very effective at blitzing up the A-gap. He chipped in with six sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble last season.

Hightower played down the stretch with a torn labrum in his shoulder that required off-season surgery. Even still, he played every snap in the Super Bowl and his tackle of Marshawn Lynch at the 1 yard line with less than a minute to go saved a touchdown and set the stage for Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception.

Mayo is coming off of his second season ending injury in a row, both during Week 6. Mayo has been a very solid performer for the Patriots but his injury woes could derail his tenure with the team if he can’t stay on the field.

Mayo was voted by his teammates as a defensive captain for five years in a row from 2009-2013. He led the team in tackles in his first five seasons before the injury bug hit him in both 2013 and last season. He re-negotiated his contract this spring and the only thing that can hold him back is health at this point.

Next up are the near locks.

Near Locks: Dane Fletcher, Chris White

Fletcher was brought back to New England after spending a year in Tampa Bay. Fletcher played in 38 career games with the Patriots with six starts totaling 81 tackles with four sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles. The 6’2, 245 Fletcher was a popular player in his time here, playing in sub-packages and asked mainly to cover backs out in the flat and tight ends.

With the release of Brandon Spikes this spring, Fletcher’s stock had to rise in the coaches’ eyes as he has plenty of experience in the defense and he can lend an aura of veteran savvy and leadership to the younger players. He played in all 16 games last season for the Bucs and logged 30 total tackles and 10 special teams tackles.

White was claimed off waivers from Detroit in 2013 and has been a core special teams player for the past two seasons. He’s not going to contribute much on defense as a linebacker but more of a STs player but he has a leg up on the competition being in the system for the past few seasons.

With the influx of guys who can play STs as well as contribute more on defense, he’s not a lock but they’ll have to jump over him on the depth chart. With so many players vying for snaps this summer, White has the advantage.

Next …the guys on the bubble

On the Bubble: James Morris, Darius Fleming, Jonathan Freeny, Dekoda Watson, Matthew Wells, Xzavier Dickson, Rufus Johnson, Eric Martin, D.J. Lynch

Morris is an intriguing case; He was signed as an UDFA last spring, suffered a blood clot in his leg and was released. He was brought back during training camp and even wore the green dot communication device during a pre-season game against the Giants before suffering a season-ending injury. In his second season, he’ll get some reps with Mayo and Hightower on the mend with their respective injuries.

Fleming was signed by the Patriots last season and was active for five games playing mostly on STs appearing in all three playoff games. He recovered a fumble on a punt return in the AFC Championship Game. He’s entering his fourth season in the NFL after suffering injuries in his first two with the Niners.

Watson, Freeny and Martin are all trying to latch on with the Patriots after playing in the league mainly as STs players. Watson has played for the Bucs, Jaguars and Cowboys appearing in 70 games with seven starts. Freeny spent three seasons with the Dolphins appearing in 44 games as a back-up linebacker and special teams contributor. Martin played in 29 games with the Browns the past two seasons with one start.

Rookies Dickson, Wells and Lynch will have to fight for snaps but each has some upside as well as practice squad eligibility. Dickson was a “Jack” linebacker at Alabama and the light came on for him in his senior season. In 14 games with nine starts for Tide he led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Given some time in the strength and conditioning program, he could beef up to be an edge rusher from the OLB position.

Wells is an undersized (6’2,215), linebacker who has some outstanding athleticism. He ran a 4.43 in the 40 during his Pro Day with a 35.5 inch vertical leap. He’d project to a sub-package coverage linebacker and a special teams guy. Wells is built more like a bigger safety than a linebacker and could be a candidate for the big nickel slot to cover athletic tight ends.

Johnson spent some time with the Saints last season and has great size at 6’5, 272, Lynch was signed as an UDFA from Bowling Green; Both have to be considered longshots with the logjam at the position.

The Patriots linebacker position is top loaded with talent but with injuries to Mayo and Hightower to start the season, the depth guys may have to step up initially until they’re ready to go. There is a ton of STs possibilities here, but after the three starters, the rest of the slots are wide open.

Stay tuned, we’ll be down at training camp filing daily updates about the goings-on with the Pats as they begin the march to the 53 man roster.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

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