In the wake of losing defensive star Jerod Mayo for what may be the rest of the season, the New England Patriots will turn to other players to fill his gigantic role. Mayo is critical for the Patriots defense since he is the signal caller and easily the most athletic linebacker on the team. He is so important to the defense that he played 98% of defensive snaps before being injured on Sunday’s game. So how to make up for the loss of Mayo? Second year linebacker Dont’e Hightower will likely take over signal calling, but he and Brandon Spikes are too slow to take over Mayo’s role in pass coverage. Many people are quick to call out the rookie Jamie Collins as Mayo’s replacement, but in all likelihood it will be Dane Fletcher.
Fletcher is unknown to much of Patriots Nation because of his previously limited role with the team. He was went undrafted in 2010 and signed with the Patriots, where he was one of only two undrafted rookies to make the roster. He didn’t see much playing time until week 6 as a reserve in the game against the Baltimore Ravens and the following week he recorded a forced fumble against the San Diego Chargers. Patriots fans may recall the game against the Green Bay Packers in which Matt Flynn started in place of an injured Aaron Rodgers. Flynn nearly led a late-game comeback to steal the win from the Patriots, but Fletcher recorded his first career sack and helped seal the game. He finished that rookie season with 23 tackles and two sacks and a forced fumble in 13 games played.
In 2011 he was absolutely dominant in the preseason and earned himself more playing time, although he missed several games due to a thumb injury. In his 10 games played he recorded 32 tackles and a forced fumble. He even made an impact in the Patriots Super Bowl run that post season with eight tackles. These numbers aren’t overwhelming, but he was a reserve player for most of his time in New England. 2012 looked to be a promising season for Fletcher if he could continue to build off his growth, but he tore his ACL on a meaningless punt in the first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints and was out the rest of the year.
Fletcher, 27, has grown dramatically in his brief time in the NFL and has garnered the respect of Coach Belichick since he is one of the rare successful players that has switched from playing on the defensive line to playing inside linebacker.
Dane’s in a very unusual situation, it’s a short list of players who have gone from being defensive linemen to being inside linebackers that I’ve worked with…Most of the time, those guys go from being defensive ends in college to outside linebackers at our level. To take a defensive lineman to an inside linebacker position, it’s a much bigger challenge, to go from a defensive lineman to a guy that has coverage responsibilities, formation responsibilities, to seeing the game from your feet, and from depth, as opposed to seeing it this far away from you, [that is] the guy across from you. It’s a whole different ballgame, and there’s not a lot of players that can do that. Dane’s done a good job of it.
With the increased depth at linebacker this season, Fletcher’s time on the field has been limited, but it has slowly increased with each game. Now that Mayo is out indefinitely it seems only likely that Fletcher will take on greater defensive responsibilities. Even with his limited experience, he is the better option over rookie Jamie Collins. The inside linebacker position is incredibly complex and the pressure on Collins would be tremendous. It will be interesting to see how Belichick utilizes the unique skills of each linebacker to replace Mayo.