Since signing with the New England Patriots as an undrafted rookie out of Montana State in 2010, Dane Fletcher has been an underrated athletic linebacker who always seems to play well when given the chance.
Against the Broncos on Sunday night, Fletcher was inserted for an ineffective Dont'a Hightower and played the most significant snaps of his career. He finished the game with a forced fumble and seven tackles, an impressive performance that showed he could be an important part of the Patriots defense going forward.
Fletcher has been used in a variety roles over his three seasons with the Patriots, including being a core special team player. He missed all of 2012 after tearing his ACL in the preseason, but fortunately, the injury didn't seem to set back Fletcher's development.
In his senior season at Montana State, Fletcher won the Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP Award and held the record for the most sacks all-time in the Big Sky. A defensive end in college, Fletcher's athleticism prompted a move to linebacker in the NFL.
As a rookie, Fletcher drew some gameplan specific roles on defense, such as being a spy on Ray Rice and holding him to just two catches for 13 yards. The Patriots also experimented with him at outside linebacker, and when Fletcher saw significant time, he played well.
He never played more than 31 snaps in a game as a rookie, usually serving as an injury fill-in. But he finished the season with 22 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
In 2011, Fletcher's snap totals almost doubled, as he settled into a middle linebacker role behind Brandon Spikes. Fletcher filled in for Spikes in the first two games of the season due to injury but saw his snaps decrease once Spikes returned.
He suffered a thumb injury that would require multiple surgeries and keep him out until Week 14 against the Washington Redskins, where he again would fill-in for the injured Spikes.
Bill Belichick said after that game, via Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, "When Dane's had a chance to play this year, he's done well. Unfortunately, he has missed a little bit of time, but he has done a good job. I thought he stepped in and was physical. It is good to have him back."
Fletcher then played 66 percent of the snaps in the final four regular season games of 2011, but Spikes would return to full playing time for the team's Super Bowl run, and Fletcher saw just 25 total snaps in three playoff games. In the Super Bowl against the Giants, he played just one snap.
After losing his entire 2012 season to the ACL injury, Fletcher was not limited in the 2013 offseason.
Said Belichick at the start of training camp, via Joe Soriano of MusketFire.com, “Dane was out there all spring, he didn’t miss anything in the spring. I think his movement skills and speed and all those things are at a good level."
With big linebackers like Hightower and Spikes on the roster, there certainly seemed to be an opportunity for someone who could run, like Fletcher. However, Fletcher saw just 19 snaps on defense through the first seven weeks of the season.
Even when Jerod Mayo went down, and there was much speculation that Fletcher would be called upon to help replace him, Fletcher still only saw just seven snaps in the Pats' first game without Mayo against the Jets.
But after the Jets specifically targeted Hightower in the passing game with great success, Fletcher was introduced as the dime linebacker the following week against the Dolphins, playing 20 snaps and recording a sack and a quarterback hit.
Then came the primetime matchup against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. With the Patriots focused on selling out to stop the pass, Hightower was a frequent target and was the closest man in coverage on Manning's touchdown toss to Jacob Tamme.
With the Patriots down 24-0, they made the switch to Fletcher at halftime, and he put together the best game of his career.
“It was an adjustment that we needed to make,” said Bill Belichick, via Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe. “[Fletcher] was well-prepared and stepped in there and did a good job."
Fletcher played 57-of-90 total snaps and would grade out as the fourth-best Patriot defender in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
With Mayo done for the season, no other linebacker on this roster has the skill set that Fletcher has. When given the chance, he's performed well throughout his career. He continues to show a nose for the ball to go along with his strong tackling skills.
Fletcher has certainly shown that he deserves the chance to be a more significant piece of the Patriots defense.
The Patriots are sure to run into some high-powered passing offenses if they're to make a Super Bowl run, and Dane Fletcher could be a significant piece of the puzzle to stopping them.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist who also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.