Jerod Mayo was the first linebacker selected when the Patriots began to turn over their defense in 2008, and since then he's been the building block at the Patriots' linebacker position and the leader of the defense both on the field and off.
However, despite the rave reviews of his physical prowess and football intelligence, these attributes haven't always translated onto the field in an impactful way.
Sure Mayo made a lot of tackles and could clean up the trash, but he was often a step off in coverage and didn't have the physical power of someone like Brandon Spikes to dominate on the inside.
Many began to wonder if perhaps Mayo was miscast in the 3-4 defense as a weak inside linebacker. He might've had an NFL-leading 175 tackles in 2010, but being a "tackling machine" isn't always a good thing, especially when they're happening five or six yards from the line of scrimmage.
A move to the 4-3 defense in 2011 seemed to potentially open things up for Mayo. No longer would he have to battle guards like he did in the 3-4. As the weakside linebacker in the 4-3 Mayo would be in space and able to utilize his speed and recognition skills to make more of an impact.
However an MCL injury in early October of 2011 derailed Mayo's season, and he struggled to regain the quickness and burst that he had before the injury. He still made positive strides as far as his career was concerned, but despite the scheme change Mayo still had his inconsistencies.
But now in 2012 Mayo is finally putting together the kind of season everyone has been waiting for. He's healthy and the coaches are now maximizing his strengths. The result? Mayo is having a potential All Pro season.
Mayo already has career highs in sacks (3) and forced fumbles (4) and is currently third in the NFL in tackles, and as you can see his grades from ProFootballFocus (membership required) are off the charts.
A look at PFF's signature stats also show Mayo might be the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL. They have him third in pass rush productivity, second in run stop percentage, first in tackling efficiency and seventh in coverage, his supposed weakness.
By every available metric Mayo is having a dominant season.
Let's take a closer look at how the Patriots have been utilizing Mayo differently this year.
First a look at the old 3-4 from the 2009 playoff game against the Ravens. This used to be the defensive formation of choice for the Patriots, until it was slowly reduced to only their run-stopping formation. Now it's only used only on occasion.
As you can see Mayo doesn't have much room inside to maneuver, thus negating his substantial speed and giving a greater advantage to the guard that he must defeat.
Now below we see Mayo in the current 4-3. Instead of being head up on a guard he's now in space, in this instance on a wide receiver against whom Mayo should have a size and strength advantage. The dirty work is left to Spikes and Hightower, freeing up Mayo to do what he does best, make plays in space.
Granted this is just one snapshot of one play, and the Patriots are moving Mayo all over the defense, but the advantages in the 4-3 over the 3-4 are clear.
Against the Texans on Monday night Mayo had somewhat of a coming-out party. That might sound strange for a fifth-year player and captain, but it was possibly the best performance of Mayo's career (in what is already by far his best season) especially given the stage and quality of opponent.
Mayo stood out most in his run defense and pass rush, where PFF graded him with a 1.8 and 1.2 respectively, his best combined stats in those areas.
In recent weeks the Patriots have developed a new found fondness for sending Mayo after the quarterback. Whether it's a simple "hug" play, in which Mayo has the green light to blitz when his running back stays in to cover, or a designed play to free him off the edge, the Patriots are taking advantage of Mayo's speed in a way they hadn't before.
In the play above it's man-to-man defense, so the offensive line assumes Mayo will peel off to cover Arian Foster. Instead Mayo flies in unblocked before Schaub can react to dump it off. It's game-changing plays like this that Mayo has been making all season.
In the past three games Mayo has been credited with two sacks, two QB hits and two QB hurries—the best pass-rush stretch of his career.
For five years we've heard rave reviews of how good Mayo is and how his work ethic, smarts and athleticism have been admired both in his own locker room and throughout the league. But this year he has taken his game to a whole new level.
Part of it is the scheme and how the coaching staff is now utilizing him. Part of it is that he is healthy. But perhaps the biggest part is that Mayo's experience and hard work are finally starting to pay off.
The convergence of all these factors has Mayo playing at an All-Pro caliber this season, and if it continues the Patriots defense might just be the ones to lead New England back to the Super Bowl.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist, the creator/editor-in-chief of PatsPropaganda.com and co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast with AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.