Aug 9, 2012; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher (52) during warm-ups before the game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
It has recently been reported that linebacker Jerod Mayo could possibly miss the remainder of the 2013 season due to a torn pectoral muscle. This continues a horrible trend in Foxboro, where it seems that nobody has been able to stay healthy through the first six games of the year. The defense has already lost Vince Wilfork for the season, as well as Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly (those two shouldn’t be out for much longer however). Mayo is one of the best inside linebackers that the NFL has to offer, and it will be tough for New England to replace his presence on the football field.
Here are a couple quick hit thoughts on how I think the Pats may go about replacing Mayo.
1. Fletcher Over Collins
After this news broke, I took to twitter to get some immediate thoughts out, and the responses I received, indicated that most people think that the Patriots intend to utilize the rookie, Jamie Collins, as a replacement for Mayo. I personally think that Collins is an exceptional athlete, who has the capability to be an impact player for the Patriots in the near future. But he is not the best option at middle linebacker, at this moment in time. If anything, the amount of snaps that he has received should indicate that. Collins has been on the field for a mere 52 snaps through the first six games, which in my mind, shows that the Patriot coaching staff does not completely trust the young rookie with a key responsibility.
Dane Fletcher is the guy that I think will absorb most of Mayo’s snaps while he is gone. His coverage skills are certainly up to par, and he may be even better than Mayo in this particular category. A big weakness this Patriots defense has shown through the first six weeks, is their lack of talented coverage linebackers. Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower are both too slow to keep up with the top tight ends, and while Mayo is competent in this area, even he struggles in this department. Fletcher has the necessary tools to excel in pass coverage, and the Pats may benefit when he is in the game. With this being said, Fletcher is not in the same vicinity of Mayo in terms of overall talent. Mayo is one of the best in the game when it comes to stopping the run, and this is a big weakness of Fletcher’s.
When you survey the depth the Patriots currently have at linebacker, their top two options behind Mayo are Collins and Fletcher. They both have talent, but Fletcher’s overall skill-set and experience gives him the edge over the 2013 second round pick.
2. More 3-4
With one of the best run stuffing backers gone, the Patriots may run a 3-4 defensive front more often than the 4-3 front. This seems even more likely when you consider their extreme situation at defensive tackle. With Wilfork and Kelly currently out, they have had to lean on Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, two undrafted rookies, to clog up the middle. By switching to the 3-4, there will be less responsibility on the defensive tackles to make plays, however the pressure then lands on the shoulders of the four linebackers on the field. I think the Pats could come up with an interesting front if they choose to go the 3-4 route. Spikes and Fletcher would man the middle, with Hightower and Ninkovich on the outside. It will definitely not be as effective with Fletcher in the middle instead of Mayo, but it will be a lot tougher to move the ball against this type of front, rather than a 4-3 with Vellano and Jones in the middle (they were pretty bad in Sunday’s game).
3. Three Safety Look
Another wrinkle the Pats may throw into the mix with Mayo gone, is a nickel defense with three safeties on the field. Duron Harmon, the rookie out of Rutgers, has been been coming along nicely in his first season in the NFL, and he might see an increase in playing time after this injury. The NFL is a pass first league now, and the Patriots find themselves in the nickel defense for a good portion of each game. With Mayo out, we could possibly see them go to this nickel package in situations where they would normally use a base defense when was on the field. Having an extra safety helps defend against the pass, and if you have the right guy, could help the run defense stay stout, as well.