One of the biggest weaknesses of the 2013 New England Patriots roster was the group of linebackers. A big reason for this was the injury sustained by Jerod Mayo last year. However what was a weakness last season, should be a major strength in 2014.
For starters, Mayo will be back, and hopefully, 100% healthy. Mayo is one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL, and it is obvious that this defense simply isn’t the same when he is on the sidelines. He is terrific against the run, he knows how to dissect an opposing offense’s looks, and he is quite competent in defending the pass game. Yes, he does get beat by tight ends and running backs on occasion, but compared to someone like Brandon Spikes, Mayo is just fine in dealing with pass coverage.
However all of those skills are dwarfed by Mayo’s biggest strength. His leadership. Of course, I don’t have direct knowledge of what Mayo does on the field and in the huddle, but based off of everything I have seen, and everything that is reported by the beat guys, Mayo is an outstanding leader. I would put him up there with Vince Wilfork, and Devin McCourty as the leaders of this defense. If nothing else, having Mayo back out on the field will help stabilize this unit, and allow them to maximize their collective talent.
Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins appear to be the other two starting linebackers, and I am extremely excited for what they should be able to bring to the table. Hightower takes a lot of unnecessary heat from fans, mainly because he is a bit slow in defending running backs, and tight ends in the passing game. And that is a fair assessment. But he has improved tremendously since coming into the league, which has to count for something. He is a big guy, and he is excellent is stopping the run, so I think it is a given that he will struggle at times in the passing game.
But what Hightower lacks in athletic ability, and coverage skills, Collins makes up for it with his tremendous skill-set. Collins proved in last year’s playoffs that he has what it takes to not only start in this league, but make a hell of an impact. He is a freak athlete, who despite his size (6’3, 250), can stay with the best tight ends in the league, and help shut down the middle of the field for an opposing offense. In addition to this, he has enough explosive speed that allows him to blitz well, and get after the quarterback. I have high hopes for this kid, and in a few short years, he may be one of the best overall defensive players that this league has to offer.
Now, when I say the Pats group of linebackers is a strength to an extent, I mean how bad their current depth is. After the stud starting trio, there isn’t much talent to be found after them. New England has signed a bunch of undrafted guys, but we can’t place our full trust in those players if one of the starters goes down. I do like second year man Steve Beauharnais‘s game, and he possibly could have developed into a nice player over this offseason. But Bill Belichick and company need to find, or make sure the guys they have right now can fill in for the starters. Because as Pats fans know all too well, injuries are a part of the game, and not having solid backups could jeopardize a team’s season.
As an overall group, I think this year’s crop of linebackers will do well. But I really am concerned with the depth behind the big guys, as just having someone like Steve Beauharnais as a backup isn’t that comforting. We will see how Belichick decides to deal with this situation.