The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the linebacker position.
Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins are the most likely trio of starters on the Patriots' roster. Behind them, though, there's a whole lot of mystery. The Patriots added veteran linebacker James Anderson as a free agent, in hopes of finally finding a solid coverage linebacker. They have also stockpiled young prospects, like Ja'Gared Davis, Darius Fleming, and Steve Beauharnais, but they added rookie free-agents Cameron Gordon, Taylor McCuller, and Deontae Skinner this offseason. They, along with Chris White and Josh Hull, will all be competing for the remaining one or two spots.
Jerod Mayo: Aside from newcomer James Anderson, Mayo is the eldest statesman of the Patriots' linebacker group. Mayo is returning from a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2013 season in October. He had led the Patriots in tackles in each year prior to 2013, and his absence was felt on a defense that ranked 30th against the run. From his rookie year, he has been regarded for his great instincts, first-step quickness, understanding of angles, and ability to pursue plays from behind, all of which have made him a great run-stuffing linebacker. He also has the pass-rushing savvy to get into the backfield on the occasional blitz. He always seems to be just a step slow in coverage.
Dont'a Hightower: One of the Patriots' two first-round picks in 2012, Dont'a Hightower became a fixture in the lineup when Mayo went down with his injury. Hightower manned the green dot helmet, calling the plays in the huddle via radio contact to the sidelines. Hightower is a great run-stuffing linebacker at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, but is found on the wrong end of plays in coverage too often. He has expressed an interest to be used more in pass-rushing situations, something he did a bit more often at Alabama than he has done so far in the NFL.
Jamie Collins: After a hot finish to the 2013 season, Collins' trajectory is skyrocketing. For the last seven games of the season (five regular season, two playoffs), he showcased his abilities no matter the assignment — rushing the passer, stuffing the run, and dropping into coverage. If he can play with his head screwed on straight, like he did down the stretch, his freakish combination of size (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) and athleticism (4.64-second 40-yard dash, 41.5-inch vertical jump, 139-inch broad jump, 7.1-second three-cone drill) give him a tremendous ceiling in all aspects of being a linebacker. After playing a total 298 snaps in 2013, Collins could see his role increase substantially with the departures of Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes.
James Anderson The Patriots have been missing a talented coverage linebacker in recent years, and James Anderson may be the perfect candidate to fill the void; the 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker was once a safety before making the switch. As an undersized linebacker, he may not project to more than a sub-package role in the defense, but his strengths in coverage are a worthwhile trade-off for a team that has had trouble covering tight ends and running backs recently.
Steve Beauharnais: After playing only one defensive snap in 2013, Steve Beauharnais will get another shot to crack the 53-man roster. This year, his chances should be better, considering the absences of Spikes and Fletcher. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Beauharnais is considered a good team leader — he was spotted commanding the huddle in 11-on-11 drills during organized team activities — and has a lot to offer on special teams, as well.
Ja'Gared Davis: The 6-foot, 245-pound Ja'Gared Davis may be undersized, but he is a solid tackler and has the strength to set the edge in run defense. He does not, however, have the speed to flow from sideline to sideline in a 4-3 defense. He spent the 2013 season on the practice squad, and could be headed back there in 2014.
Deontae Skinner: The Patriots added Deontae Skinner as an undrafted free agent, yet another undersized linebacker at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds.n Skinner has experience on special teams, like several of the other candidates for backup linebacker spots, and may have to stand out in that role if he wants to make the roster.
Darius Fleming: A former fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, Darius Fleming is one of two players the Patriots added this offseason (along with Dominique Easley) who has torn the ACLs in both knees. He was a workout wonder, running a 4.58-second 40-yard dash and putting up 27 225-pound bench press reps. His athleticism makes him an interesting prospect, but his injury history makes him a question mark at best.
Cameron Gordon: One of three undrafted linebackers that were signed by the Patriots following May's draft, Cameron Gordon was given the highest signing bonus of any undrafted rookie signed by the Patriots at $35,000. That doesn't guarantee him a roster spot; his size (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) is not ideal for a linebacker at the NFL level, but his special teams ability could certainly help his case, as could his versatility to line up at outside linebacker in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
Others: Josh Hull, Taylor McCuller, Chris White
1. Jerod Mayo
2. Jamie Collins
3. Dont'a Hightower
4. James Anderson
5. Steve Beauharnais
6. Cameron Gordon *
7. Taylor McCuller *
8. Deontae Skinner *
9. Darius Fleming *
10. Chris White *
11. Josh Hull *
* = projected cut
At the moment, we haven't seen enough from any of the linebackers that were brought in this offseason to make a conclusion as to their status in the battle for roster spots. Anderson gets the nod for the moment due to his abilities in coverage, and Beauharnais gets his spot due to his experience in the system, special teams ability, and the potential for him to fill the Fletcher role as a rotational linebacker. There is still plenty of time for the young linebackers to prove themselves, and the fifth spot is still very much up for grabs.