How the New England Patriots Can Fix Their Lack of Depth at Linebacker

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IApril 2, 2015

New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower, left, and outside linebacker Jamie Collins, right, in the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

Between Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the New England Patriots have a dominant starting trio of linebackers.

Beyond those three, the Patriots have a colossal pile of question marks. 

That's why it was no surprise when reports began to surface that Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain was visiting the Patriots, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. That's also why it was disappointing to learn that McClain had re-signed with the Cowboys, per Ed Werder of ESPN.

Plugging McClain in next to his old Alabama teammate Hightower could have been a match made in Heaven—especially since McClain's transition to the Patriots defense would have been simple, thanks to similar terminology between Alabama and New England. Instead, the Patriots are back to square one in addressing their lack of depth at linebacker.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of options available on the open market and through the draft who could help the Patriots in a pinch. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

They already hosted free-agent linebacker Colin McCarthy for a visit back in March, per ESPN's Field Yates.

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The four-year Tennessee Titans linebacker stands 6'1" and weighs 243 pounds, pretty much the perfect size for an inside linebacker in the Patriots' defense. He could also add some experience and ability in coverage. That was his primary role in the first two seasons of his career, according to Pro Football Focus.  

It's been a month since they had him in for the visit, but the Patriots have been known to keep a running list of players who they can sign later as attrition unfolds. Last year, they signed linebacker James Anderson several weeks after having him in for a visit.

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Let's not completely write off Brandon Spikes, either. Yes, he was vocally pleased with his departure from New England, referring to his time under head coach Bill Belichick as "four years a slave." Yes, he was exiled from New England after years of rubbing coaches the wrong way and an instance where he was late to a team meeting.

Spikes may have opportunities to sign elsewhere. Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley expressed interest in re-signing Spikes, per Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News, and according to Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN, the Vikings have also shown interest.

His previous comments notwithstanding, Spikes looks back at memories of his time in New England through rose-colored glasses now that he is an unsigned free-agent.

"It's the hoodie. It's Bill Belichick. He's a genius," he said on NFL Network in March. "He just plugs guys in and his system works. My time there, I just learned how to be a true professional. It's a first-class organization. They drafted me and a lot of teams passed on me. They gave me the opportunity and I’ll always be forever grateful for that."

If he can fall in line more with Belichick's expectations, he's proven he can contribute on first and second downs. If nothing else, he already knows the defense and could fill in in a pinch.

Given the concerns around Mayo's health and Hightower's readiness to start the season, the Patriots may have no choice but to add someone through free agency. That being said, the Patriots have fared well building at linebacker through the draft in recent years. Mayo is coming up on 30 years old, and the Patriots are coming up on some big decisions on both his and Hightower's contracts.

It would be hard to argue against their continued focus on youth at the position. 

One potential Patriots linebacker, and perhaps the strongest fit in the draft, is Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney. 

At 6'4" and 246 pounds with 33" arms, McKinney is imposing in the middle of a defense. Like some other Patriots linebackers, he's not considered a particularly strong coverage linebacker, but according to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, he has three qualities that will make him a perfect fit: He's assignment aware, a good blitzer and has a high football IQ. 

Hightower and Collins could flank McKinney on the strong and weak sides, respectively, allowing McKinney to avoid heavy coverage responsibilities. Hightower would most likely continue his role in the nickel defense over McKinney.

Whether it's a draft pick or a free agent, the Patriots should be adding at least one linebacker to their depth chart between now and training camp. If not, they could be paper-thin at the position and just one injury could likely cripple their defense. 

The Patriots have overcome injuries at linebacker in the past, but this year, the question marks are too great to ignore.