The New England Patriots have several key free agents and not enough money to sign everyone.
Spikes joined NFL Network's NFL AM Friday. The free-agent-to-be did not sound as though he expects to return to New England when free agency begins March 11. In fact, he seemed to think that his departure could be beneficial for both him and the Patriots.
On @NFL_AM, LB Brandon Spikes says he "would never say never" on NE return, but thinks both sides would probably benefit from a fresh start.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) March 7, 2014
This has been a long time coming. According to a report from Chris Mortensen of ESPN, the Patriots placed Spikes on injured reserve in part because he was late for a team meeting. He got caught in a snowstorm before a Friday practice during the bye week before the Patriots' playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
"I think that was a coach's decision," Spikes said of being placed on injured reserve, via ESPN's Field Yates. "And I'm just an employee, you know, what Adam Sandler said, 'just go with it.' I had no choice, but I think, you know, they put me on IR because of my injury. I was definitely devastated to not be able to compete, you know, you fight all season to get to the playoffs and it really hurt me not to be out there with my teammates."
Spikes expressed some regret over the way things ended, but he turned to a classic Belichick idiom to help him put the past behind him.
"I think, you know, overall, you know, if I could do some things differently I would, but it is what it is in the past and I think it's just time to move on," Spikes said, via Yates.
The Patriots have already started moving on. They have used high picks on linebackers over the past several years: Spikes was a second-round pick in 2010, Dont'a Hightower was a first-round pick in 2012 and the Patriots added Jamie Collins in the second round in 2013. In 2011, the team signed veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo to a five-year extension to keep him with the team through 2017.
The Patriots could be looking to feature Mayo at weak-side linebacker, Collins on the strong side and Hightower in Spikes' old spot in the middle. The project is already off to a good start. The Patriots beat the Colts in the divisional round, with Collins playing a key role. It could be up to Hightower, though, to replace Spikes' lost production.
There are some similarities in their game. Both linebackers are thumpers against the run with limitations in coverage. Both are at their best when attacking the line of scrimmage, either coming downhill to stop the run or pressuring the quarterback. What they lack in athleticism, they make up for in instincts.
Hightower has been a strong-side linebacker in the Patriots' 4-3 defense, but he could also play the middle. He was a movable part in Alabama's 3-4 defense, playing inside and outside linebacker and even lining up with his hand in the dirt at times.
It might seem like the Patriots are simply trading one linebacker for a similar one, but the starting group gets a lot more athletic with Collins moving into the lineup. Instead of two linebackers whose weakness is in coverage, there will be only one, and he'll be in the position where dominant coverage is not necessary to success.
Will the Patriots regret letting Brandon Spikes leave?
Collins could take Spikes' snaps in the nickel defense, pairing with Mayo when the team has four down linemen and only two linebackers on the field. Spikes and Hightower split those snaps next to Mayo early in the season, but the nickel defense featured mainly Hightower and Collins after Mayo's season-ending injury.
In any situation, the Patriots have the pieces to smoothly transition into the post-Spikes era. One thing they will certainly miss, though, is his energy. Few would deny that Spikes was an emotional leader for the Patriots defense, with his heavy hits becoming a trademark. He set the physical tone for the defense. That's an intangible that could be difficult to replace.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.