Jerod Mayo is one of the clear leaders of the New England defense. (AP)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We looked at the offensive side of the ball, as well as special teams. To open things up on defense, we examined the state of the defensive line. Now, it’s the linebackers (For the complete series, click here):
Roster (stats taken from coaches film review): Steve Beauharnais (1 tackle), Jamie Collins (38 tackles, 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Ja’Gared Davis, Dont’a Hightower (137 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Chris White (1 tackle), Jerod Mayo (66 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Deontae Skinner, James Anderson.
Overview: The New England linebackers had quite a season last year — the indestructible Mayo was lost for the year after going down with a pectoral injury after just six games. Hightower was up, and then down/benched, and then up again. Collins came on like gangbusters down the stretch and revealed himself to be an athletic freak of a defender who is capable of multiple things (working in coverage, rushing the passer) at the NFL level. And Brandon Spikes went out in the most “Brandon Spikes” way possible, falling out of favor with the team after missing a meeting because he couldn’t get out of his driveway after a snowstorm. (After leaving town, he compared his time in New England to slavery.) In the midst of all of it, the Patriots were able to survive with a combo of Spikes-Hightower-Collins-Dane Fletcher. But they really missed the multiple abilities of Mayo, who had could work in coverage, rush the passer and operate with the green dot on the back of his helmet, all effectively. Going forward, while there are serious questions about depth beyond the starters, Anderson might be in position to work as a nickel linebacker on third down and other passing situations. There also appears to be some snaps open for one of the youngsters (Beauharnais? Fleming?) to fill the role of special teamer/backup that Fletcher did so well over the last few seasons. (Hull, who made his bones as a special teamer with the Rams and Redskins, could also figure in the mix there as well.)
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. Jerod Mayo makes everyone around him better.
Mayo’s critics have roundly derided him as not being an elite-level linebacker on the same plane as someone like, say, Patrick Willis. But Mayo’s absence for the better part of last season really exposed the deficiencies of the group as a whole — no one on the roster has a skill set like Mayo. He can run with tight ends in coverage, occasionally rush the passer or work as the defensive leader. If you think of him as a student, he’s not necessarily the type who would garner A’s across the board. But at the same time, he rarely drops below a B- level of work. Just a steady, dependable, reliable presence who is fundamentally an extension of Bill Belichick on the field. And when Vince Wilfork decides to call it a career, this will become his defense. (It will be interesting to see if his responsibilities are altered at all this season — particularly against the run — now that Spikes is gone to Buffalo and the Patriots are left without a top-shelf run-stopper.)
2. Jamie Collins is just a freakish talent.
There were plenty of times early in the 2013 season where Collins made a rookie mistakes by overrunning plays, and then found himself trying to reverse field with his speed. After slowing a bit and letting the game come to him, he appeared to re-adjust nicely. The coaching staffs’ ability to bring him along at a gradual rate also helped his development — according to Pro Football Focus, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder didn’t play more than half the snaps in a game until Week 14 against the Browns. But with Spikes falling out of favor down the stretch, Collins emerged as more of a dependable presence on defense. He was arguably New England’s best and most complete defender in the Divisional Playoff win over the Colts — in that game, he played every snap (for the first time in his NFL career) and finished with six tackles, three quarterback hits, a sack, a pass defensed and an interception. While he appeared overwhelmed at times in the AFC title game against the Broncos, his late-season surge sparked a strong belief that the Patriots had found their next great defender.
3. Depth is an issue.
The offseason losses of Fletcher and Spikes dealt a blow to the depth of the New England linebacking corps, one that the Patriots were still looking to address late in the spring with the addition of Fleming, Anderson and Hull. Look, injuries are always a concern at every position. And while there’s always the possibility that one of the younger players or veteran pickups could step forward (like Collins last year), if New England loses one of the starters for a significant stretch, it would be a major blow for a linebacking corps that’s already pretty thin.
1. Can James Anderson fill the role of occasional coverage linebacker?
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Anderson was signed as a free agent this spring, and has shown an ability to work in coverage over the course of his career. The 30-year-old, who has played with both the Bears and Panthers, could be a guy who is on the field in third-down and other passing situations in place of Hightower. He’s been praised as a smart veteran who has also shown an ability to serve as a mentor for younger players — if he’s able to get up to speed in the system in relatively rapid fashion, he could have a positive impact this season.
2. Can Dont’a Hightower deliver a consistent, full season of work?
By his own admission, Hightower was all over the place last season. He started well, but for a few reasons — not the least of which included a desire to maybe try and do too much when Mayo went down — he got out of his comfort zone. He was benched for some key moments last season, including most of the second half and into overtime of the regular-season win over the Broncos. (Although, to be fair, that could have been more a desire to keep a pass-first defense on the field against Peyton Manning.) Regardless, Hightower appeared to right things down the stretch, and again became a regular factor in New England’s defensive game plan. With the losses at linebacker over the course of the offseason, the Patriots will need Hightower to be able to maintain the level of play he showed down the stretch and into the playoffs.
3. Will we ever see anyone like Brandon Spikes in New England ever again?
Probably not. From his Twitter feed to his on-field celebrations, the freewheeling Spikes was never boring. After four years with the Patriots, he takes his act to Buffalo. He punctuated his departure from New England with a variety of shots at the Patriots, and the fact that he’s psyched about getting a chance to knock off the Patriots twice in 2014.
By the numbers: 0 – The number of starts (in a New England uniform) at linebacker for anyone other than the presumed lead trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Key new player: Anderson. The Patriots have lacked a coverage linebacker for a few years, and the veteran could be the sort of longtime presence who brings a level of stability to the position. He fully admitted this spring that there’s a long way to go when it comes to the learning curve, but he feels good about where he is at this stage of the process. One more note on Anderson: he’s a tackling machine. Anderson has played in 110 NFL games and has registered 556 total tackles. Last season in Chicago, he started all 16 games and finished with 102 total tackles and four sacks.
The skinny: If the starters are able to remain healthy through the duration of the 2014 season and someone like Anderson is able to provide a boost when it comes to depth, then this group should be OK.