Dec 15, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Rishard Matthews (18) is tackled by New England Patriots middle linebacker Dane Fletcher (52) in the first quarter at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
At linebacker a battle pits rookie Matthew Wells and veteran Dane Fletcher in the role of coverage linebacker in the sub package defense. With Dont’a Hightower recovering from shoulder surgery and Jerod Mayo still recovering from season-ending knee surgery their status at the beginning of the season is still unclear. Therefore, there are going to be extra snaps available in camp and in preseason for another linebacker to step up and take precious snaps on defense.
Oct 11, 2014; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs linebacker Matthew Wells (22) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the game against the Auburn Tigers at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State Bulldogs defeated the Auburn Tigers 38-23. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots invested a sixth round draft pick on Matthew Wells. An off-the-line defender who excels in pass coverage, the Patriots have often left a roster spot for that type of linebacker having kept Jonathan Casillas and Dane Fletcher on the roster in the past. Wells was rated as one of the best coverage linebackers in the draft allowing just a 48.8 catch rate of 21 receptions on 43 targets last season with six passes defended (per ProFootballFocus.com–subscription required). Wells could be a steal in the draft if he can carve out a coverage role in the nickel or dime defense as a coverage linebacker.
Of course, the aforementioned Fletcher signed a free agent deal to come back to New England after a year in Tampa Bay. Fletcher started four games for the Buccaneers last season and was a regular in the linebacker rotation for four years in New England. He earned his pay day in free agency in 2013 when he had a huge game against Denver in prime time matching up with running backs, tight ends, and even slot receiver Wes Welker and helping the Patriots come from behind to win in overtime.
Wells is at a disadvantage in regards to competing with Fletcher in that Fletcher is well versed in the New England defense while Wells is a late round draft pick. Fletcher is also a core special teams player who made a number of tackles in his time in New England previously. That said, Wells is the better athlete and is younger, faster, and quicker. This may not be the most-watched competition on the practice fields, but it could be among the more compelling as the veteran and rookie battle for one roster spot on defense.
Next: Position Battle #4: Defensive End/Outside Linebacker