FOXBOROUGH — Even an eight-year NFL veteran can feel like a rookie sometimes.
Veteran linebacker James Anderson was a free agent until June 4, after the Patriots had already kicked off organized team activities. It’s understandable, then, that he’s a little behind in his knowledge of the defense.
After spending his first eight years with the Carolina Panthers and this past year with the Chicago Bears, Anderson is now learning his third different defensive system in the past three seasons.
“[My head is] not necessarily spinning, but I feel like a rookie almost,” Anderson said at OTAs on Thursday, “because it’s a totally different defense than I’ve ever played, so just learning the techniques and how they want things done, I’ve got to spend a little more time in the playbook.”
The Patriots needed depth at linebacker after losing veterans Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes as free agents this offseason, but Anderson brings a different skillset to the table than any linebacker currently on the Patriots roster.
At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Anderson is a bit smaller than the other Patriots linebackers, but he is regarded for his abilities in coverage and should factor into the team’s sub packages on passing downs.
“I would agree,” he said, when asked if he views himself as a coverage linebacker. “As you know, looking at my size, I’m a little bit smaller than most of the other guys around here. So to make up for that, I have to be fast and be able to cover, so I take that as a strength, and I work on it.”
Over his career, Anderson has lined up primarily at strong-side linebacker (same side of the formation as the tight end). According to stats website Pro Football Focus, he spent 478 snaps in coverage of his 1,010 total snaps in 2011, 222 snaps in coverage of 528 total snaps in 2012, and 449 in coverage of 1,013 snaps in 2013.
The Patriots could have used Anderson’s services in any of those years. They have struggled in coverage over the middle; according to Football Outsiders, they ranked 29th in coverage of tight ends in 2011 and 2012, after moving up to 13th in 2013.
“I don’t think it’s a dying art, I think the offensive game is transitioning,” Anderson said. “You’ve got tight ends now who are receivers, you’ve got running backs who are tight ends, so the game is a little different, so I guess you’ve got to kind of mold your defense to what they’re doing now.”
It looks like Anderson’s primary duties will be in coverage, but he’s not stuck on that idea, and he’s not sure exactly how he’ll fit into the defense just yet.
“I see myself fitting in kind of where they tell me to go,” he said. “Everything is still new. I’m still learning the defense. Still learning from the guys around me. Trying to work in as much as I can. When the season comes, wherever they tell me ‘that’s where you are,’ I’ll do that with everything I have.”
The Patriots like their players to be able to fill multiple roles, but a niche player like Anderson could be valuable to the defense.