Coming into the 2013 season, there were plenty of questions regarding Brandon Spikes' future with the New England Patriots.
Spikes chose to spend the offseason before his contract year working out in Florida instead of the Patriots' team facilities, leading to questions if that was the best move for a linebacker needing to prove he's a three-down player.
Spikes' dominance in the run defense in unquestionable.
He is currently ranked second in the NFL in both stops and stop percentage by ProFootballFocus.com. Spikes has the rare ability to single-handedly destroy an opposing run game by charging with incredible power into oncoming blockers, and often pushing them into the backfield.
With season-ending injuries to run-stopping defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, Spikes' value in the run game has never been more apparent.
While Spikes is still looking for his first forced fumble in 2013 after picking up five in 2012, he did recover a key fumble against the Broncos and has already surpassed his stuffed run total from last season.
He also leads the Patriots' defense with 74 total tackles, 19 shy of his career-high for the regular season with four games still to go.
However, the questions about Spikes have never been about his ability to stop the run, they have been about his pass defense, and he's taken significant strides there as well this season.
In 2012, opposing offenses had a 116.1 passer rating and a total of 231 yards after the catch when throwing at Spikes.
This season, it's down to an 80.3 rating and only 79 yards of YAC (Yards After Catch).
Last summer, the likely scenario for Spikes and the final year of his contract seemed to be that the Pats would undervalue Spikes since he wasn't a "three-down" linebacker and that he'd walk for a more lucrative offer elsewhere following this season.
Dont'a Hightower would slide to middle linebacker and second-round pick Jamie Collins would take over the strong-side duties. Such a move seemed like it would improve the Pats' pass coverage ability in their base defense, with the slightly more-athletic Hightower taking over for Spikes.
But from what we've seen this season, is Hightower really an upgrade at middle linebacker over Spikes in coverage? Barely, if at all. Meanwhile, Hightower would certainly be a downgrade from Spikes against the run.
No, it seems apparent that Hightower is really at his best on the line of scrimmage, likely at strong-side linebacker.
Is Spikes ever going to be a linebacker who never comes off the field? No, but he is not a weak link in pass defense either, and when asked to do so, has played fine in sub-packages.
No other linebacker on the Patriots roster, even Jerod Mayo, has the kind of presence that Spikes has in the run defense. The Patriots would be wise to hang on to a player like that.
So what if he has to come off the field in third-and-long? It doesn't mean he's not a necessary player.
Every player has his weaknesses, but few have a strength that can impact a team as much as Spikes.
Stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).