New England Patriots: Where Does Dane Fletcher Fit into the Defense?

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IMay 18, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 31:  Brett Favre #4 of the Minnesota Vikings throws the ball but is hit by Dane Fletcher #52 of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 31, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Favre was injured on the next play and left the game. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Dane Fletcher is a relative unknown in the New England Patriots linebacking corps, but he could be the missing piece to the puzzle.

Although some regarded him as a 3-4 outside linebacker coming out of college, he played mostly sub package defense in 2010. Still, Fletcher played nearly all the different linebacker positions at one point or another last year.

Thus, where he fits best in the Patriots defense remains unclear.

That the Patriots played only 40 percent of their defensive snaps in the base 3-4, as opposed to 57 percent in the sub package, only contributes more heavily to the uncertainty around Fletcher's role with the defense.

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss has pointed out that Fletcher played a lot in the 3-3-5 sub package. That front, featuring three down linemen and three linebackers, is much more similar to the 3-4 defense than a 4-2-5 sub package, which has four down linemen and only two linebackers.

According to Mike Dussault of Pats Propaganda, the Patriots struggled to cover tight ends and running backs last year. They ranked 21st and 30th against those positions, respectively. As a sub package linebacker, Fletcher could be asked to assume the Gary Guyton role in coverage.

In only his second game, against the Baltimore Ravens, Fletcher's main responsibility was in spy duty against Ray Rice. In that regard, Fletcher played well, helping to hold Rice to just 88 yards on 28 carries and 38 yards on eight receptions. His averages in both categories for that game were far below his averages for the season.

One pressing concern for many Patriots fans after the draft is at outside linebacker. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit examined the prospect of Fletcher playing there. Hill seems to think that if Fletcher could add some weight, he could play outside linebacker in the 3-4.

And wouldn't you know, Christopher Price from recently noted via Twitter that Fletcher looks "a bit bigger."

However, there is the fear that his best positional fit in the 3-4 may be at the "Will" linebacker spot, currently occupied by Jerod Mayo. That would indicate that Fletcher will only ever see the field in the sub package.

That's where his versatility comes into play.

Having played at nearly every linebacker spot last year, who knows how he will best fit into the defense.

Undeniably, Fletcher played his best football down the stretch in 2011. He tallied two sacks and an interception, all of which came in the final three weeks of the season. He also played a great deal more in those last three weeks, appearing in 77 out of a possible 207 defensive snaps (37 percent).

To put that in perspective, Fletcher played only 22 percent of the snaps in all the games he appeared combined. That doesn't even include the games he didn't appear; His first appearance came in Week 4 against the Dophins, and he missed Weeks 9 through 11 as a healthy scratch.

We know Bill Belichick likes Fletcher enough to play him in a significant number of downs in a given game. That could bode well for his chances to earn more playing time in 2011.

What we don't know, though, is how the lockout will impact rosters, or even the season. Belichick could be more inclined to give the nod to the guys who have been in the system longer and understand it the best. In that respect, Fletcher could be fighting an uphill battle.

But it's hard to believe Belichick, midseason, would give Fletcher a prominent role on a whim that Fletcher might know what he's doing.

Fletcher may not have a "cut-and-dry" role in the defense, but with the type of versatility he showed last year, he could play the Mike Vrabel role of moving around to different spots to allow Belichick to disguise the coverages and pass rushers, all while moving players around to get the most out of them.

That type of value is invaluable to Belichick.

Erik Frenz is the co-host of the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcast. Follow Erik on Twitter @erikfrenz.