Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp for the Patriots. I wanted to finish the off-season by seeing how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense. The offensive line , running backs, defensive backs, defensive line, and wide receivers/tight ends got much love earlier in the off-season. Let's finish strong and jump in to the sixth and final installment of all things Patriots (almost got them all done before training camp!) with a look at the...
LINEBACKERS:All discussion of linebackers and the Patriots begins with the defensive captain, number 51. Jerod Mayo is the truly the heart of the defense, and no one player is more important in how they line up and what plays are made or not made, than Mayo. Mayo may not put up gaudy sack numbers, or interceptions, but he is the prototype of the Bill Belichick inside linebacker: he makes tackles. Mayo helps take away the running game and underneath patterns on defense. Mayo has shown the ability to get at the quarterback in pre-season games in previous years, but for whatever reason, once the real games start the defense goes back to predictable and Mayo goes back to regular role as arguably the cog that makes the defense go.
Next to Mayo at inside linebacker is Brandon Spikes. A bit of a fool off the field, Spikes none-the-less makes up for his lack of straight-line speed (which allowed him to drop to the Patriots when they drafted him) with play-making ability. Spikes is weak covering tight ends and backs (I cringe every time I see him in pass coverage) but has great football intelligence and anticipation. Next to Mayo, they combine to fill the middle of the field behind Vince Wilfork and give the Patriots a very strong "up-the-middle" backbone on defense (when all are on the field with safety Patrick Chung). Health has been the bane of Spikes' career in the red, white and blue, as his injuries (and stupid suspensions) seem to detract from his impact with him on the field only 50% of the season. The more number 55 lines up next to number 51, the better the defense will be.
All eyes are on first round pick out of Alabama, Dont'a Hightower at linebacker. Hightower is expected to play multiple positions at linebacker and make an immediate impact. Lauded for being a smart, versatile playmaker in college, Hightower already appears to have a fan in coach Bill Belichick, who has uncharacteristically gone out of his way to laud his play early in training camp. Haven't heard Belichick talk up a young linebacker like that since, well, since Jerod Mayo. Take that as a good sign.
Bobby Carpenter was an intriguing pick-up by the Patriots this off-season, as he is a veteran who seems to have never lived up to potential. The important strength of Carpenter is that he can play regularly if needed, unlike the undependable Dane Fletcher and Tracy White, who are also back-ups inside, but both are primarily special teams players. If either finds their way to the field for the regular defense, it means injuries and is NEVER a good thing. Number 52 and 58 should been seen on special teams...otherwise, there is a reason why the defense is giving up chunks of yards.
Carpenter is only 28 and was a former first round pick. There is not as much tread worn off his tires as one would think, with Carpenter having only 3 starts in Dallas and coming off hte bench primarily. Carpenter is insurance against injuries and should help keep the defense fresh by rotating in. Carpenter has struggled to find a fit in the NFL, but if there is one skill the Bill Belichick team has, it is putting players in a position to succeed and play up their strengths. If they can do that with Carpenter, he may be one of those Mike Vrabel-type diamonds in the rough they dig up on occasion.
Niko Koutouvides and Jeff Tarpinian are largely the back-ups on the outside to the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker players such as Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham and Chandler Jones who, depending on the scheme, can be defensive ends or outside linebackers. Somewhere out of these five (and Jake Bequette, Trevor Scott, and maybe Justin Francis) must come some kind of pass-rush. Tarpinian and Koutovides are special teams players primarily, and rookie Chandler Jones should line-up with Rob Ninkovich for the majority of the base defense. Without Andre Carter (unsigned) and Mark Andersen (free agent going to Buffalo for an obscene amount of cash) and their 20 combined sacks, the defense needs to generate consistent pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
Jermaine Cunningham remains the enigma wrapped in a riddle, the second-round pick flashing potential his rookie campaign, but then being buried on the bench for most of last season. If he is ever going to make an impact, the time is now. Potential does not cut it in the third season. This is make or break for Cunningham. Produce, or be cut, that is what he is looking at this summer.
Finally, the linebackers include the usual camp fodder in long-shots Mike Rivera and Aaron Lavarias. Rivera, an inside linebacker, has bounced around multiple practice squads since 2009 and likely will not make the team or practice squad. Aaron Lavarias is hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker who bounced on and off the practice squad last year and his best bet is to do the same again this season. Alex Silvestro appeared to be in the same boat but has spent this off-season at tight end, which seems to make his chance to stick worse, but maybe that flexibility pays off.
Either way, this unit needs to step up and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stuff running games early and get teams out of their offensive rhythms. Too many long drives last season left the Patriots defense on the field too much and their offensive play-makers sitting on the sidelines drinking Gatorade and Vitamin Water, or whatever sugary drink they guzzle down while watching the defense give up chunks of yardage and opposing offenses convert third downs.
It takes the linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs working together to get this unit to be a strength again, rather than a liability. It is the only thing holding back that final step to winning the Super Bowl that has eluded this team. If the defense is going to allow them to steal a playoff game when the opposing defense stymies Tom Brady and company, the linebackers are going to be a key cog in doing so.