With Patriots training camp set to open on July 24, CBSBostonSports.com will provide a positional breakdown at each spot on offense and defense. Today’s breakdown is at linebacker.
Major Players: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, James Anderson
On The Bubble: Steve Beauharnais, Ja’Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon, Josh Hull, Deontae Skinner, Chris White
If you figure that the departure of Aqib Talib was countered and balanced by the signing of Darrelle Revis, then it’s safe to say that Brandon Spikes represents the Patriots’ biggest roster loss this past offseason.
Now, that’s not say that the Patriots wanted to keep Spikes, but his departure nevertheless removes an imposing force from the middle of the New England defense, someone who brought the pain every single time he stepped up to stuff a run. His hard hits and intimidating presence will be missed, however they’ll also open the door for the next young linebacker to step up and make some plays.
Enter Jamie Collins.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker came on strong at the end of his rookie season, recording 28 tackles in the final six weeks of the regular season and putting together an eye-popping performance in the Pats’ divisional round playoff win over the Colts. In that game, Collins recorded six tackles (three solo) and one sack, and he intercepted an Andrew Luck pass in the fourth quarter to crush any hope the Colts had of winning the game. It was a breakout game for the linebacker out of Southern Mississippi, and the big question this year is whether he can make “the jump” in his second season.
Given Collins’ athleticism, speed and strength, he seems fit to the task. Alas, the challenge is being presented to him this summer, and it’s up to him to prove he’s ready to answer it on a weekly basis.
Elsewhere in the group, Jerod Mayo is the established leader, while Dont’a Hightower has some questions he’ll need to answer as well. He’s displayed the physical ability to play the position at this level, but he’s often look confused with his assignment, leading to him trailing by a step or two (or three) in pass coverage. Hightower’s shown promise, but the Patriots need him to make improvement this season.
The newcomer to the group is veteran James Anderson. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Anderson spent the first seven years of his career with the Panthers before playing last season for the Bears, when he recorded 102 total tackles and four sacks. He hasn’t let the fact that he’s a bit undersized get in the way of his ability to play in the league, and his speed should be an asset if Hightower or Collins struggle in their pass coverage.
The rest of the group consists of mostly inexperienced players. Chris White and Josh Hull are the “veterans” of the group, as they have 77 NFL games played and 53 tackles between them. The rest of the group — Steve Beauharnais, Ja’Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, Cameron Gordon and Deontae Skinner — have a combined three games and one tackle among them. In these players, Bill Belichick may be hoping to find a diamond in the rough in the mold of, say, Dane Fletcher. Under Bill’s tutelage, Fletcher went from an undrafted defensive lineman to a viable NFL linebacker, as evidenced by the $1.2 million he got guaranteed from his deal with Tampa Bay this offseason.
Trying to predict which, if any, of these players might be capable of rising to the occasion would be a fool’s game. But if Belichick can find one valuable contributor out of the group, the Patriots’ linebacking corps should be in pretty solid shape.
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