(This is another entry into the ‘Positional Breakdown’ feature on Musket Fire.)
Under Contract for 2013: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Mike Rivera, Dane Fletcher, Jeff Tarpinian
Mayo had another great year in 2012, he arguably is the best player on the Patriots defense. He is a fantastic tackler, and great at reading run plays and shutting them down. Mayo is a pretty good cover linebacker as well, as he is the one guy that the Patriots have that has a pretty good shot at staying with faster guys over the middle. I do think that Mayo can improve in pass defense, and I think he will because he is an elite linebacker in this game, and guys like him are always working hard to improve.
Spikes had a good year in 2012, as he once again proved himself as one of the biggest hitters in the NFL, and one of the best run stoppers. He delivers bone crunching hits to opposing running backs throughout the season, and forced quite a few fumbles in 2012. He is good at reading where the play is heading as well, so he can actually use his run stuffing prowess. However, he did not make as big as an improvement in pass coverage as many of us Pats fans would have liked. He routinely got beat over the middle by tight ends and running backs. In my opinion he does not look like he can ever be a true three down linebacker like Jerod Mayo. Unless he really steps up his ability to cover players over the middle, I think he will be relegated to strictly a run stopper in 2013.
Hightower had a very good rookie season in my opinion. He was good against the run, and routinely did a very solid job at setting the edge. Hightower is built much like Brandon Spikes and has the capability of stopping the run nearly as well as Spikes can. Hightower is a big guy, and struggles in pass coverage, much like Spikes. However the difference is, I think Hightower has a much better chance at improving as a defender in the pass game. He even showed good improvements toward the end of the 2012 season, and I think that will carry over to the 2013 season.
Mike Rivera, Dane Fletcher, and Jeff Tarpinian:
Fletcher is the only guy of these players that I think will make an impact on the Patriots defense in 2013. Rivera and Tarpinian are both excellent special team players, and are really only linebackers for depth. Fletcher however I believe can make a big impact for 2013. As I said above, the Patriots starting linebackers struggle in pass coverage at times and I think Dane Fletcher can help that in 2013. Fletcher missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, but when he was healthy, he was a fast guy that could actually cover tight ends and running backs over the middle when needed. He may not be as good at stopping the run as Mayo, Spikes, and Hightower but I think he may be better in pass coverage than all of them. He could possibly come on to the field when the Patriots go to their nickel and dime packages on defense.
This group looks pretty solid for the Patriots in 2013. They have a great starting group in terms of stopping the run, however they do struggle at pass coverage. I do not think that they need to go out and get somebody specifically for that need, because I am confident that Dont’a Hightower will improve in that area, and Dane Fletcher will be back with the team in 2013. Another reason I don’t think they should sign someone new is because I don’t want them to sacrifice good run defense for a little better pass defense. I believe that run defense for linebackers is much more important than pass defense for linebackers. If you allow the opposition to run the football then it really does not matter who you have to cover players in the passing game, it will be pretty tough to slow the opposing team down. I expect another solid year in run defense for the Pats in 2013, and hopefully an improved year in pass coverage.