How will Jerod Mayo bounce back this season after being placed on season-ending injured reserve each of the last two seasons? (Jerome Davis/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the offensive side of the ball and now we’ve shifted to defense with the cornerbacks and safeties, now we take a look at the linebackers.
Depth chart (regular-season stats via Pro Football Reference): Jamie Collins (91 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions), Jerod Mayo (37 tackles, one sack), Dont’a Hightower (61 tackles, six sacks), Dane Fletcher (28 tackles), Darius Fleming (three tackles), Eric Martin (one tackle), Geneo Grissom (rookie), James Morris, Rufus Johnson, Jonathan Freeny (11 tackles, one sack.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. One of the best young linebacker group in the league. Names such as Collins, Hightower and Mayo definitely are attention grabbers as the group has the potential to be one of the best linebacker cores in the entire NFL. Collins is entering his third season, Hightower his fourth and while Mayo is entering his eighth, he’s 29 years old and hasn’t played a full season since 2012. Provided the group stays healthy, which it has had trouble doing, there’s no doubt they will be considered one of the best in the league.
2. Jamie Collins is a freak. There isn’t a more athletic linebacker in the entire NFL. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, the Southern Mississippi product can do things not many can, both on the field and off. (Check out this video he posted to Instagram of him doing back flips this offseason.) He has the quickness of someone playing in the secondary, but the strength of a defensive lineman. At just 25 years old, Collins will be a special player to watch over the next several seasons.
3. More pressure on group this season. With the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington in the secondary, it seems like the Patriots will be putting more pressure on their front-seven than last year. Last season the secondary was able to take control of the opposition’s passing attack by shutting down wide receivers, but this year it might be a different story. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may need to create some pressure on the quarterback with blitzing more than he’s done in the past and with the linebackers the Patriots have, it will be something to monitor.
1. Does Dont’a Hightower play Week 1? The 25-year old had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum, which he played most of last season with forcing him to miss four games. The Alabama product is expected to return to the field at some point during training camp, or even at the start, as he didn’t start on the PUP list, but there’s still some uncertainty of him being ready for the season opener against the Steelers. If he isn’t ready to go, it would open the door for a player like Fleming to make the final 53-man roster. Regardless of if he’s ready for the opener, it doesn’t appear like he will miss any significant time.
2. How does Jerod Mayo bounce back? For the second straight season, Mayo was only able to play in six games as he was placed on season-ending injured reserve each of the last two seasons. This past year the Tennessee product tore his patellar tendon. It will be interesting to see what kind of level Mayo plays at after playing in a combined 12 games each of the last two seasons. He’s exactly the type of player Bill Belchick loves — not necessarily a play-maker, but someone who is very smart and very consistent.
3. Will pass coverage be better? One of the biggest knocks over the years on the linebackers group has been the inability to defend the pass. Opponents have had a great deal of success with their running backs out of the backfield and their tight ends having big games. Some of this is because of the Patriots’ lack of speed at the position. Collins has been one of the better ones and the return of Fletcher could be a boost as well. But, with what will be a young secondary behind them, this will be an area where Belichick and Patricia will want to see some improvement.
By the numbers: Collins was the only guy in the league last year with at least four sacks, two interceptions and a blocked field goal attempt. (Bruce Irvin and Julius Peppers also had at least four sacks and two picks.)
Key new player: Fletcher. After playing his first three seasons in the league with the Patriots from 2010-13, Fletcher played last season with Tampa Bay, but signed a one-year deal with the Patriots this past May. While he certainly won’t be a starter, he provides good depth at the position and can play special teams. The 28-year-old is familiar with the system and should only add to what is already a good group of linebackers. The Montana State product could emerge as a good third-down linebacker if he can prove he can stay with running backs out of the backfield.
The skinny: As we’ve mentioned, the linebackers have the potential to be one of the best units in the NFL, provided they stay healthy. What makes it even more impressive is all three guys who lead the group — Collins, Hightower and Mayo — were all drafted by the Patriots. The only thing that could slow the group down is if one of the three get injured. With that being said, even with what happened last year with Mayo and Hightower’s injuries, it didn’t hold them back as they went onto win the Super Bowl. It was clear the secondary led the defense last season and this season it might just be the linebackers.