Analyzing the New England Patriots' Linebacker Unit
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When looking back at the New England Patriots' dynastic run of three Super Bowl victories in four years, you think of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest on defense.
Heading into the 2013 season, Patriots fans should be amped for the return of a linebacker unit that consists of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. Those three former SEC linebackers help to form a defensive front that will be just plain scary to face.
This linebacker unit is a big reason why the Pats were No. 9 in the NFL last season in rushing defense. With additions made this offseason in the secondary and on the defensive line, this defense (especially the linebacking corps) will thrive.
Also, let's not forget that the Pats added depth to the position through the draft by taking linebackers Jamie Collins and Steve Beauharnais.
Here is a look at the linebackers for the Patriots' 2013 campaign.
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Jerod Mayo has been the leader of this linebacker unit ever since the Patriots selected him with the No. 10 pick in the 2008 draft. He has been a tackling machine for the Pats season-after-season.
The former Tennessee Volunteer led the team in tackles yet again last season with an impressive total of 147. He finished No. 4 in the league in tackles in 2012.
Mayo not only accounted for the majority of takedowns for the Pats last season but also notched three sacks, forced four fumbles and made an interception.
After five very successful seasons with the Patriots, Mayo enters 2013 as the leader of a defense that has slowly been becoming a force to be reckoned with. Adding veterans like Tommy Kelly and Adrian Wilson will only help Mayo's defense take another step forward.
At this point, fans expect Mayo to reach at least 100 tackles regularly. After collecting 175 total tackles in 2010, Mayo has certainly proved that he is one of the best at his position.
His forced fumble and sack totals from 2012 were both career highs for Mayo, showing that one of the NFL's elite linebackers is still improving.
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Brandon Spikes is a fun player to watch. He's an exciting and aggressive player built to bring even a run-away train to a halt.
His hard-hitting ability makes it a scary scene for running backs heading in his direction.
Spikes had a career-high 92 combined tackles last season, sitting behind only Jerod Mayo. 2012 was by far his best season since joining the team in 2010.
He tied with Rob Ninkovich for the team lead in forced fumbles with five and also added a sack. The former Florida Gator took a big step forward in 2012 after playing in just eight regular season games the previous season.
Recently, The Boston Globe reported that Spikes will skip organized team activities and attend minicamp in June.
This is the final year on Spikes' rookie contract, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Spikes definitely showed some improvement last season, but it will be interesting to see if the Pats will re-sign him.
For now, he will continue to get better and likely have an even bigger 2013 season as he eyes a big pay raise.
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What a great job the Patriots did in the 2012 NFL draft by taking Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Those two players are the future of this Patriot defense, and Hightower will continue to grow into a great NFL linebacker.
Hightower finished No. 5 on the team in total tackles (60) last season as a rookie. He also garnered four sacks, and recovered two fumbles (including one brought back for a touchdown) and a team-high six tackles for loss.
After an impressive rookie campaign, Hightower is ready to take the next step. He is ready to become a leader on defense.
In a recent interview with NESN, Hightower talked about the learning experience he had last season, getting advice from Jerod Mayo, one of the biggest leaders on the Pats' defense.
"I learned a lot when I first came in. I learned a lot during, and then even now. Learning just little smaller tricks. Things from Mayo. The linebacker corps as a whole, we’re all pretty close. We all work together. So we all take tips and tricks from everybody."
Now, Hightower is taking what he has learned and sharing it with rookie Jamie Collins. Not only is Hightower becoming a leader, but don't be surprised if his game gets taken to another level this season.
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Many Patriots fans don't know what to expect out of the team's first-draft choice, Jamie Collins. He was under the radar in college and at this year's draft.
No matter how high expectations are for the rookie, the good news is the Patriots added depth to their talented linebacker unit. Not only that, but they added a guy who can play both defensive end and linebacker effectively.
Collins has a ton of potential as a pass-rusher. The Patriots future pass rush looks extremely potent with young players such as Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Collins.
It was smart for the Pats to add depth at linebacker, especially with Spikes sitting on the last year of his contract. If somehow Spikes ends up elsewhere, then perhaps Collins could eventually take his spot.
As he enters his first NFL season, Collins must learn from the great linebackers ahead of him. It will be important for him to sit back and learn from Mayo and Hightower, also while working on his consistency as a pass-rusher.
The Rest of the Bunch
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To round out the rest of the unit, the Patriots mainly have a number of young linebackers. Niko Koutouvides is the only remaining seasoned veteran.
Dane Fletcher is a solid linebacker, but he missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his ACL. He had 55 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in two seasons with the Pats prior to the injury.
The Patriots recently signed Round 7 draft pick Steve Beauharnais. He could serve as a decent backup this season at linebacker.
Also on the roster are young linebackers Mike Rivera and Jeff Tarpinian.
The linebacking corps for the Patriots is one of the team's strongest units. With a mix of star power and youth, the Pats have some of the best linebackers in the NFL today.