What Role Will Jerod Mayo Play on the New England Patriots Defense in 2015?


Sep 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots linebacker

Jerod Mayo

(51) against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are just a few weeks away from training camp and face an unsettled linebacker position. Veteran Brandon Spikes was surprisingly re-signed after an acrimonious departure after being put on injured reserve during the 2013 playoffs. Instead, he was recently released after an off-field traffic incident and leaves a hole at the linebacker position.

The starters from 2014, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, are recuperating from injuries. Hightower had offseason surgery on his shoulder after he played in pain during the playoffs. In fact, his Super Bowl saving tackle at the one-yard line of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch on first down before Malcolm Butler’s interception. Collins was out with an unannounced injury during OTAs and the mandatory minicamp.

Veteran Jerod Mayo is coming off yet another season-ending injury and his status at training camp is yet to be determined. Mayo was injured in week six in 2013 against New Orleans and was lost for the rest of the season. The linebacking group underwent a major change as the Patriots had to play without Mayo for the first time since 2007. Rookie Jamie Collins moved into an outside Will (weakside) linebacker spot and the Patriots and Hightower played at Mayo’s Sam (strongside) linebacker spot.

Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (91) against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014 the Patriots initially struggled to dole out snaps to their trio of linebackers and the defense struggled in week one against the Dolphins. Collins was injured in week two and missed the Minnesota game and played minimal snaps against Oakland in week three. Hightower was injured in week four against Kansas City and did not return until week seven against the New York Jets. With Mayo going down in week six, there were plenty of snaps for the linebacker group.

Veteran Jerod Mayo and exciting young players Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are proficient in run defense, rushing the passer, and dropping into coverage. The problem the Patriots have had the past two season is in having Mayo healthy enough so all three linebackers can be on the field together. What they do on defense when all three are healthy remains to be seen. The defense has played best the past two seasons when Hightower and Collins were the only linebackers on the field.

The question remains as to what role Jerod Mayo will play on defense for the New England Patriots in 2015?

Sep 29, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back

Jamaal Charles

(25) runs the ball as New England Patriots middle linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) attempts the tackle during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mayo was a top ten draft pick in 2008 and stepped into the defense as a starter as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. He topped 100 tackles while starting all sixteen games as a rookie. As the team switched to a 4-3 defense in 2011 Mayo seamlessly transitioned to the weakside linebacker position on defense. Mayo’s season was ended after just six games in 2013 and 2014 as a torn pectoral muscle and then a torn patella tendon in his right knee last year.

In Mayo’s absence Hightower and Collins have blossomed playing primarily as the two linebackers on the field in the sub package. Both are excellent blitzers with a strong burst, power moves, and innate timing. Last year ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) had Collins rated first in the NFL for inside linebackers in their pass rushing productivity statistic as he brought pressure on 25.3% of his pass rushes. Hightower was no slouch either ranking seventh at the position getting pressure 16.1% of the time he rushed the passer.

Hightower and Collins are both extremely athletic and played well covering running backs and tight ends last season as well. With the Patriots in a nickel or sub defense for almost 70% of their snaps on defense the past two seasons, the third linebacker role has been filled by an extra secondary player. In 2013 Hightower stepped up and showed huge improvement once Mayo was on the sidelines and he received regular playing time at strongside linebacker.

With middle (“Mike”) linebacker Brandon Spikes released, the big question in training camp is if Mayo or Hightower slides inside in the base defense. Mayo last played inside linebacker in the 3-4 base defense in 2010. The lasting image from that season was Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson of the New York Jets running roughshod over the Patriots defense (and Mayo) in the divisional playoff game which the Jets won 28-21.

Sep 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (51) tackles Minnesota Vikings running back

Matt Asiata

(44) at TCF Bank Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Vikings 30-7. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mayo–who tore his patellar tendon last October–is not yet 100 percent healthy. He recorded 53 tackles in just the six games he played last season. So far in the spring workouts he has yet to see the field during the OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Once Mayo reestablishes his health, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia should find a way to get a defense drawn up that allows Mayo to start at linebacker alongside Hightower and Collins.

Mayo has already taken a pay cut to stay in New England much like veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork did prior to last season when coming back from a season-ending injury. He had been scheduled to make a base salary of $6.25 million and took a cut to $4.5 million, with the chance to make up much of the rest if he meets certain incentives. Like the framework of Wilfork’s deal in 2014, Mayo’s total of $4.5 million is guaranteed, and the Patriots retain option years on his contract for 2016 and 2017.

Although he has not played much the past two years, when he was fully healthy Mayo was one of the better three-down linebackers in the NFL. He made his mark as a solid coverage linebacker against the pass and strong in support against the run. His prior contract was a five-year, $48.5 million contract extension at the end of the 2011 season which made him one of the highest paid players at the position.

When all three linebackers are healthy at last, the Patriots have some tough decision. Whether they play in a 5-2-4, 4-3-4, 3-4-4 or 2-5-4 base defense on first down New England is going to be much better defending the run and short passing games with Mayo, Hightower, and Collins on the field together. Hightower and Collins have played so well in the sub package together (4-2-5 or 3-2-6 alignment) that forcing Mayo onto the field in that alignment seems counterproductive. No matter what, training camp will be interesting to see where the top three linebackers are aligned when together on the field.