Steven Senne/Associated Press
If the defensive line was left vulnerable in 2013, the linebackers look like they could be this year's weak link. That might appear confusing to some Patriots fans who see the rock-solid starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
It's true that those three form an excellent foundation, with complementary skill sets that represent a nice, young foundation. However, at the moment, it appears 2013 seventh-rounder Steve Beauharnais is currently the fourth linebacker. Beauharnais was active for two games last year and played just a single defensive snap, which came in junk time against Baltimore. Meanwhile, the likes of Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis and offseason signing Josh Hull figure to contribute strictly on special teams.
Thus, it should not be difficult to see how injuries could send this unit into catastrophe. The defections of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher will hurt, as both reliably fulfilled specialty roles. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Spikes' plus-11.6 run defense grade was the highest of any middle linebacker in the league. Fletcher was also a sub-package and core special teamer during his Patriots tenure.
Undrafted rookie James Morris could make the roster as a base-package presence. In addition, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko reported that the Patriots gave a large signing bonus to Michigan's Cameron Davis, indicating an interest that could bode well for his roster chances.
However, by failing to address the position in the draft, New England has left itself vulnerable in the event that one of its starters suffers a long-term injury. Ironically, the lack of overlap among the three starters could prove damaging. None of the other two represent an ideal replacement for Mayo's intelligent sideline-to-sideline coverage, Collins' versatility in space or Hightower's physical edge-setting presence.
Unless Beauharnais or an undrafted rookie demonstrates unexpected readiness this preseason, linebacker could be a dicey proposition in 2014.