This is the first in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots heading into free agency. Today's position: Safety.Who's on the roster?Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown, Josh BarrettPatriots need level? Let's call it an 8. A solid 8.Position overview?Patrick Chung is a borderline Pro Bowler. Josh Barretthas great size and seems like he has upside, but his injury-marred 2011makes it hard to know what the team ultimately thinks of him. He was okay at best before he got hurt.Sergio Brown is a valuable special-teams guy. He didn't impress when he got his shot next to Chung near the startof the season. James Ihedigbo is more than adequate, but he'll be a free agent himself. Expect the Patriots to try and re-signhim.We could throw Devin McCourty and Sterling Moore into the safety conversation, as well. Certainly, McCourty's preferred position is corner, but if he doesn't get his edge back on the outside he could land back at safety. Moore is short and has only adequate speed but he's instinctive, makes solid plays on the ball and hits. The Patriots need a guy who can really cover some ground back there and they don't really have it. Who's out there?LaRon Landry, Washington Redskins: He's 27 and has been dogged by an Achilles injury but he's a ferocious hitter and was the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft. Still, he's gotten very bulked up and may not be as suited to a conservative, coverage style system as he would in a more aggressive scheme.Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals. The 28-year-old Nelson is a true center fielder. The Bengals want to re-sign him, though, so it could be an uphill fight to pry him loose. After a thoroughly average start to his career in Jacksonville, he was dealt to Cincinnati and played very well with four picks and 102 tackles. Other names of note?James Sanders, Sean Considine, Gibril Wilson, Bob SandersFree agent forecast?It's a position of need, but the Patriots don't have a lot of candidates to pick through here. Expect them to address the position through the draft and with the slew of defensive backs already on the roster. Expect Ihedigbo to be re-signed as well.
FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower is coming off of one of the best games of his career, and he did it while running the Patriots defensive huddle without the help of his on-the-field partner at the linebacker level.
"It’s a lot more fluent having Jamie [Collins] out there," Hightower said on Wednesday. "A lot of the times we coordinate things a lot together. I usually take care of the front, he takes care of the secondary. We have our own way of doing things. Sometimes Jamie is just like, ‘No, you go ahead and you just make the calls and I’ll play off of you.’
"It helps having him out there. I mean, he does everything so he makes it a lot easier for me. Anytime I can have him out there with me, I’m 100 percent having him out there."
Hightower has plenty of experience playing without Collins, however, and Collins is accustomed to having to go without Hightower. Both had issues staying on the field in 2015, and although it's early, that trend has continued this season.
Hightower missed Weeks 2 and 3 due to a knee injury, and Collins missed Week 6 with a hip issue, meaning the duo has been available to coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia only three times this year.
Last season the pair was active for 10 of 18 games, including both playoff games, and during a Week 5 win over the Cowboys, Hightower played just nine snaps. Collins dealt with an illness that kept him out for four games last season, and Hightower, as has been the case for much of his career, was limited by (and often played through) myriad ailments.
Both are vital to the long-term success of the Patriots defense in 2016, but it's been hit-or-miss as to when they'll be out there to play off of one another as Hightower described.
"Our linebackers, Jamie, Dont'a, they're two of the best in the league," said safety Duron Harmon following Hightower's dominating performance against the Bengals in Week 6. "Any time we can have those guys out there, they just continue to create havoc.
"They make plays, they make it easier for us, especially me. The quarterback can't look off as long when Dont'a's all in his face -- him and Jamie. Having him on the field is a plus. And when you get both of them on the field it's a double-plus."
And therein lies the issue: Having both Hightower and Collins out there together has felt like a luxury rather than the norm.
At some point, the Patriots will have to make decisions as to what they'll do at the linebacker level for the foreseeable future. Both Hightower and Collins are slated to hit free-agency, and their durability will certainly factor into the equation when the Patriots make them offers to stick in New England.
Until then, though, both will work to be available as often as possible -- both for their team's sake and their own as they eye new deals -- where they can stress opposing offenses at a degree to which most linebacker combinations around the league can only aspire.
"With us out there we’re able to do a lot of different things, [we have] a lot of versatility," Hightower said. "So hopefully we can both stay out there."
Hightower was removed from the Patriots injury report last week, meaning he's able to take on a full workload in practice. Collins, meanwhile, continues to be limited in practice, and his availability for Sunday's game with the Steelers is not yet known. In place of Collins, sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts earned the bulk of the playing time against the Bengals last week. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo saw a season-high eight defensive snaps in the win.