State of the New England Patriots Position by Position: Linebackers

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State of the New England Patriots Position by Position: Linebackers
Al Bello/Getty Images
Tight coverage like this by Jamie Collins helped limit the Colts to less than 50 percent completion percentage in the AFC Divisional Playoff game.

Signed: Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Steve Beauharnais, Ja’Gared Davis, Chris White

Free Agents: Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher

How can anyone not love Brandon Spikes? He’s a throwback linebacker that relishes delivering bone-crushing hits to ball carriers. In college he wore No. 51, modeling his game after Hall of Famer Dick Butkus.

As a Patriot, Spikes had the honor of wearing 55, worn before by Willie McGinest and Junior Seau. To Spikes’ credit, he did a fine job of following in the footsteps of those legends.

He was a tone-setter on defense. Instinctive. A fiery and emotional player. A natural leader on and off the field.

And the Patriots could be better without him.

With all due respect to Spikes and what he brings to the field, Jamie Collins can do that and more. That became apparent when Collins started the AFC Divisional round game against the Indianapolis Colts in place of an injured Spikes. Six tackles, a sack, a pass defended and an interception later, Spikes’ name is just an echo.

Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
A visored Spikes coming full bore is a vision offensive players didn't want to see coming.

As much fun as it would be to see Spikes develop along with Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower, the trio together weren’t great pass defenders because Spikes and Hightower lack ideal speed. With teams passing more than running, their coverage was a growing liability. But with Collins on the field, the unit becomes a lot better.

Collins played safety for Southern Mississippi for a season before switching to linebacker and then defensive end. Thankfully, changing positions over the years didn’t diminish his coverage skills. But it did enhance his versatility, enabling Collins to be a four-down linebacker.

If Collins becomes a starter in 2014, he will likely man the strong side with Hightower becoming the thumper in the middle. Mayo is expected to be ready for training camp after surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.

Re-signing Spikes would be a bonus for New England. Spikes has few equals when it comes to defending the run between the tackles. He also has an ability to time his blitzes almost perfectly every time. But a two-down linebacker or situational short-yardage plugger is more of a luxury than a necessity in today’s NFL.

If the Patriots played in a base 3-4 instead of a 4-3, Spikes would be more valuable to the defense. But that’s no longer the case. If New England needs a fourth ‘backer, they can move defensive ends Chandler Jones or Rob Ninkovich to outside linebacker when needed and shift Mayo inside next to Hightower. Dane Fletcher is also a possibility. He’s a free agent, but he probably will be back with the Patriots as a reserve.

There will be opportunities for Spikes elsewhere, as some teams would welcome his hard-nosed approach and personality in the locker room (Spikes might be a natural fit with the Baltimore Ravens). Spikes proved a stopwatch doesn’t mean he can’t be an impact player. But in New England, Spikes might be an outdated linebacker whose time with the Patriots might have run out.

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