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With Patriots training camp set to open on July 26, CBSBostonSports.com will break down the outlook for every position on the roster. Today’s breakdown is on the linebackers.
Major Players: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Don’t’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Bobby Carpenter
On The Bubble: Jermaine Cunningham, Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian
With a few new toys in the mix, it’s unclear what Bill Belichick will do with his linebacking corps. He has plenty of versatile players that can play inside or out, the 3-4 or the 4-3, but most importantly, Belichick has depth that eluded him in 2011.
He also has a trio of youngsters he can build around.
Once again the key to the linebacking group will be Jerod Mayo. He has slowly taken over as the leader since being drafted 10th overall in 2008. Since then, he’s totaled more than 500 tackles, leading the Patriots in each of his first four seasons. Mayo was rewarded with a five-year extension in December last season, securing him through 2017, and will be looked upon as the leader of the linebacking corps for years to come.
This season, he’ll have some more youth around him as well.
With their second first-round pick – 25th overall — in April’s draft, the Patriots took linebacker Dont’a Hightower out of Alabama. There are high hopes for the 22-year-old, who captained the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide defense and led the way with 81 tackles last season. The versatile backer can play inside or out, and could immediately start pestering opposing offenses as early as Week 1.
But while Hightower will get a bit of a pass for needing a learning curve, this is a much bigger season for third-year linebacker Brandon Spikes. After missing four games his rookie year to a PED suspension and eight last season due to injuries, Spikes is destined to have a breakout season. He just needs to stay healthy and continue to make the strides that made him a threat during the playoffs last season. After missing eight of the last nine regular-season games last season, Spikes came on strong to total 26 tackles in the postseason, including a game-high 11 in Super Bowl XLVI (tied with Mayo). Now he just needs to put together a full season of production, and use his on-the-field ferocity to intimidate opponents – something the New England defense has lacked since Rodney Harrison retired.
Granted, starting camp out on the PUP list is never a good start, but Spikes has time before the season begins to get healthy and ready to take the field.
It may be scary to think that Rob Ninkovich is the veteran of the linebacker corps, but he has become that player since joining New England in 2009. The 28-year-old recorded career-highs in tackles (74) and sacks (6.5) and tied career-highs in fumbles recovered (3) and interceptions (2) in 2011. It seemed as though Ninkovich was always around the ball, especially when he needed to be.
The Pats will also have Dane Fletcher, who missed six games last season with a bad hand, newly signed veteran Bobby Carpenter (a versatile backer that never lived up to the high draft pick hype), and Jermaine Cunningham. It will be an important camp for Cunningham, who could find himself on the bubble after playing in just nine games last season and recording a single tackle. The Pats will also have their fair share of special team linebackers in Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian and Niko Koutouvides, who should be ready to take a few snaps at any point.
It will be interesting to see what Belichick does this season — if he goes for more 4-3 defense again or reverts back to the 3-4 — but he will have options with a young core of linebackers. He has done a great job getting the most out of linebackers since 2007 after names like Bruschi, Vrabel, Colvin and Thomas either retired, were traded, or talked their way out-of-town.
With Mayo, Hightower and Spikes, among many other versatile bodies, the Patriots should have plenty of excitement, and explosiveness, gunning for opposing rushers, receivers, and even quarterbacks in 2012.