New England Patriots Off-season Outlook By Position: Part 6 of 8: Linebacker


The New England Patriots are on the cusp of free agency with March 10th the start to the new league season. They have a number of important and difficult decisions as roster deadlines and free agency threaten to change the team make-up. With a number of internal free agents and cornerback Darrelle Revis being released from his “placeholder” contract with a $25 million cap charge in 2015 (salary data from, there is a lot of work to be done by Nick Caserio and the New England front office.


Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) gets away from New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots have already made a big move locking up free safety Devin McCourty to a long-term contract. In addition, New England used the franchise tag to keep potential free agent kicker Stephen Gostkowski on the roster. Long-time defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is set to be a free agent after the Patriots declined to pick-up his option. The team still has no deal in place with pending free agent cornerback Revis and he is expected to explore free agency. The team still has a number of needs to fill, especially if they cannot keep all of their own free agents.


The NFL Draft follows in May, but by then the Patriots will be well into shaping their roster. Last season New England had a strong foray into free agency bringing in wide receiver Brandon LaFell (74 receptions for 953 yards and 7 touchdowns), re-signing wide receiver Julian Edelman (92 receptions for 972 yards and 4 touchdowns), and re-signing valuable blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and guard/center Ryan Wendell on offense (all stats from unless otherwise noted). On defense Revis was the the crown jewel but cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Patrick Chung brought hard-hitting swagger to the defense.


Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Jonathan Casillas (52) celebrates with a family member following the game against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This season the Patriots will need another strong off-season to keep the team in contention to defend their 2014 Super Bowl championship. Like all Super Bowl champions their free agents tend to be over-valued and receive extra attention from the other 31 squads. Revis is one of the top free agents on the market who should draw a lot of attention from a number of teams, particularly AFC East rivals New York and Buffalo. Finally, there are other free agents who may get a look from other teams including their mid-season acquisitions on defense Alan Branch, Akeem Ayers, and Jonathan Casillas.


Looking at free agency needs and the 2015 NFL Draft, this series first addressed the offense by looking at the most important position in part one: quarterback. Part two of the off-season delved into the running back position. Part three kept the focus on the offense and takes a look at the wide receivers and tight ends.  The offense wrapped up with part four taking a look at the offensive line. Part five moved to the defense and started with the defensive line. Part six delves into the linebackers.



Under contract: Jerod Mayo ($10.28 million cap number), Dont’a Hightower ($2.45 million cap number), Jamie Collins ($1.02 million cap number), James Morris ($595,000 cap number), Darius Fleming ($585,000 cap number), Cameron Gordon ($440,000 cap number), Deontae Skinner ($510,000 cap number), Eric Martin ($595,000 cap number), Rufus Johnson ($435,000 cap number)


Sep 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Matt Asiata (44) is tackled b New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) during the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium. at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The top name on the chopping block is inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. A 2008 first round draft pick, Mayo was injured in week six and placed on injured reserve for the second straight season. With New England in a sub package with just two linebackers for almost three-quarters of their snaps on defense the Patriots are basically going with two linebackers (Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are classified as defensive ends for simplicity). The Patriots were forcing three linebackers on the field early in the season until the loss of Mayo simplified the defense.


The Patriots have two young stars in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. The duo play well off each other and their ability to hold up in the running game, blanket running backs and tight ends in pass coverage, and bring pressure on blitzes makes them two of the most difficult match-ups for opposing offenses. The two were among the best and biggest impact defensive players on the team in the second half of the season.


Mayo is going to be a difficult player to deal with in the off-season as his cap number is sky high and has an injury protection in his contract so if he is cut and designated “injured” the Patriots leave a ton of money on the cap in dead money. The best bet is to get Mayo on a deal similar to what Wilfork took last year with a lower base salary, a signing bonus, and loaded with incentives. Of course, Mayo has all the leverage at this point and will force the Patriots to make it worth his while.


Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle (84) is tackled by New England Patriots outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas (52) and defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) in the second quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Behind Collins and Hightower the Patriots are thin and they are expected to re-sign versatile back-up Jonathan Casillas. Casillas was acquired from Tampa Bay at mid-season and filled the coverage linebacker role that head been handled the previous few seasons by Dane Fletcher. Casillas seemed to fit well in New England and should be inexpensive to keep.


The Patriots have a number of depth players including rookie free agent Deontae Skinner and former San Francisco 2012 fifth round draft pick Darius Fleming. Both impressed in preseason and bounced between the practice squad and the active roster. Skinner was active for the first half and Fleming came on at the end of the season. Both are expected to compete with the large number of back-ups already brought in for a roster spot as depth at inside linebacker.


Need (Low, Mid, High): Low


Free Agent Activity:

The Patriots will likely look at bringing back Casillas first and then let their current group compete for roster spots. The free agency crop at inside linebacker is very thin. Rolando McClain will be out of the price range the Patriots would pay at inside linebacker after reviving his career in Dallas. Craig Robertson was tendered by Cleveland and Jets linebacker David Harris re-signed in New York before hitting the market.


Oct 19, 2014; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (51) argues a call during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Rey Maualuga re-upped with Cincinnati and Brandon Spikes…well, it is a good bet that those bridges back to New England were burnt to a crisp. Behind them it gets down to the question marks: Curtis Lofton was terrible in New Orleans, Nate Irving of Denver and Mason Foster of Tampa Bay are coming off injury, and A.J. Hawk has been on a downward regression for the past three seasons in Green Bay. After this group, former Patriots Jeff Tarpinian, Dane Fletcher, and special teamer Chris White are among the most intriguing free agents.



There is not a first round prospect at middle linebacker at this point and Miami’s Denzel Perryman seems to be the consensus top inside linebacker. Perryman is short and not very fast and could be a liability in man-to-man pass coverage as a pro. However, he is strong against the run and showed good instincts playing zone coverage on the tape.


Oct 4, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Miami Hurricanes linebacker Denzel Perryman (52) in action against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the first quarter at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Benardrick McKinney of Mississippi State, Eric Kendricks of UCLA, and Stephone Anthony of Clemson make up the second-and-third round grade inside linebackers. Kendricks’ brother Mychal plays for the Eagles and Eric impressed at the combine. Kendricks has speed and size and could become a solid NFL linebacker.


McKinney is long and was impressive at Mississippi State in pass coverage and blitzing. Word out of the combine was that McKinney was not impressive in meetings with teams. Usually, that is a strong consideration for the Patriots at draft time. Anthony was a star at the Senior Bowl and was quicker and more athletic than expected at the combine. Anthony has been climbing the draft charts and the Clemson product looks more like a late second round/early third round pick.


For New England, with Brandon Spikes gone after the 2013 season and Mayo possibly on his way out, the draft is likely where the team will turn for depth at inside linebacker behind Hightower and Collins. Inside linebacker is not a huge need but the team needs to add quality bodies for injury protection and to build for the future. The second to fourth rounds of the draft appears to be the best best for New England to get a solid contributor.