FOXBORO -- For the Patriots, decision day is looming when it comes to Brandon Spikes.
The linebacker, who is in the fourth and final year of his contract, has evolved into one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league, and his value to the team figures to increase over the course of the 2013 season as New England tries to put together a run defense without defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
But as the end of his rookie deal looms, he presents the Patriots with something of a dilemma: Is he an elite linebacker who will command big dollars if he hits the open market this offseason as a free agent? Or will too many teams see him as a two-down defender who still has his issues when it comes to working in coverage, and decide to -- pun intended -- take a pass?
To be sure, Spikes is one of the best in the league at what he does. One of the few New England defenders who consistently plays with an edge, the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder is among the best linebackers in the league when it comes to filling gaps and getting after ball carriers. His crushing hits on ball carriers are a fairly regular occurrence, and when he gets going “downhill” against a running back, it’s usually No. 55 who comes out ahead of the game. The analytical website Pro Football Focus has him as the best inside linebacker in the NFL this year when it comes to “run-stop percentage,” which measures the ability of a defender to deliver a stop or loss in the run game -- in 79 snaps against the run, he has 16 stops (a play that resulted in a loss for the offense), which ties Houston’s Brian Cushing for a 20.3 stop percentage.
But in a pass-heavy league, does it make sense to invest heavily in a run-stopper like Spikes? To give you some sense of the market for comparable linebackers, there are a few relatively similar defenders of age and skill set (particularly when it comes to stopping the run) that could set a precedent for any future deal involving Spikes and the Patriots: Houston’s Brian Cushing, Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny, David Harris of the New York Jets and Dallas’ Sean Lee.
By way of comparison, and keeping in mind Spikes will be 27 at the start of the 2014 season, four of those linebackers (Kuechly is still in his rookie deal) garnered deals in their mid-twenties that landed them anywhere between four and seven years in length and $15 million to $29.5 million in guaranteed money:
• At the age of 26, Posluszny signed a six-year, $42 million deal with the Jaguars in the summer of 2011, which included $15 million guaranteed.
• Less than a week after Posluszny signed his contract, a 27-year-old Harris inked a four-year, $36 million deal with the Jets that called for him to make $29.5 million guaranteed.
• This past August, the 27-year-old Lee and the Cowboys came to a consensus on a seven-year deal worth $42.63 million, $16.3 million of which is guaranteed.
• Roughly two months after Lee signed his deal, a 26-year-old Cushing inked a pact with the Texans that will run for six years, and allow him to make $21 million in guaranteed money.
Keeping in mind that those linebackers are also regarded as average to above-average when it comes to their work in coverage, it’s reasonable to think that a player with Spikes' resume could command something on the low end of that spectrum, perhaps a four-year deal with $12 million to $14 million guaranteed.
Of course, the market for his services would likely change markedly if Spikes were to improve in coverage. There have been plenty of positive moments for him over the years working against tight ends and running backs, and in one of the great statistical moments from 2012, actually finished the year with a career-high seven passes defensed. Last week against the Bengals, he came away with his first pick of the season.
“I think Brandon’s been pretty steady for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Spikes’ work in the passing game. “He’s had some plays in the passing game every year: interceptions against the Jets, Baltimore, last week. He’s a pretty instinctive player, does a good job of reading the quarterback, breaking on the ball.
“He’s big -- he’s tall for an inside linebacker, taller than most. His range and his radius there is bigger than a lot of guys. He’s able to get some balls that might go over some 6-foot, 6-foot-1 linebackers that he can make plays on. I think it’s been pretty consistent through his career.”
But it remains to be seen if that will be enough for the Patriots to bring him back for a second contract. He raised some eyebrows when he was the only regular on the roster not to show up for voluntary minicamps this spring, preferring instead to work out in his home state of Florida. Belichick took a veiled shot at the linebacker, saying, “All of our players except one have been here regularly through the offseason up until this week.” Asked about it a month later at mandatory minicamp, Spikes simply smiled and said he likes to do things “a little different from everybody else.”
At the same time, all of this is playing out against a backdrop where a season-ending Achilles injury to Vince Wilfork increases Spikes’ overall value to the New England defense. Spikes was the odd man out over the first quarter of the season -- the Patriots relied heavily on nickel packages over the first four games, and most of the time, Spikes was the one taken off the field in favor of an extra defensive back. But without Wilfork in the lineup for the rest of the 2013 season, Spikes figures to see more playing time. That was the case last week against the Bengals: In New England’s first full game without Wilfork, Spikes was involved in 59 of the 71 defensive snaps (according to PFF), which represented a season-high. Even if New England favors nickel packages going forward, the loss of Wilfork (and, at least for this week, defensive lineman Tommy Kelly) means Spikes will play a large role in the defensive game plan when it comes to slowing down opposing running backs.
“I always want to be on the field, to help the team out, to be out there running around with the guys. We put so much in throughout the week and you get one opportunity come out on Sunday to get it done,” he said. “Sometimes it is a little frustrating but like I said, whenever my number is called I just have to go in and play at a high level and get the job done. ... I pride myself on being a difference-maker when I’m on the field.
“Losing Vince is a big loss and all, but me personally, I feel like the next guy up has to come in and step up,” he added. “I feel like I have to raise my level with him being gone. When my number is called I just come in and get the job done.”
And so, even as the occasionally combustible linebacker reaches the financial crossroads of his career, he’s keeping it simple and not thinking about what the future might hold.
“I just come out and have a good time on Sundays. I don’t really pay attention to stuff I can’t control -- it is what it is,” he said. “I just feel fortunate to be able to play this game. I just want to make the best of it. There’s a small margin in the time you get to play, and why not just go have fun? That’s all I just base it on -- going to have fun. Being happy and playing the game I love.”