Each day until the start of training camp Mary Paoletti will preview a position on the Patriots. Yesterday, she previewed the specialists. Today it's the linebackers. Check back in tomorrow for defensive tackles.
Dane Fletcher - 4th season
Dont'a Hightower - 2nd season
Niko Koutouvides - 10th season
Jerod Mayo - 6th season
Mike Rivera - 2nd season
Brandon Spikes - 4th season
Jeff Tarpinian - 2nd season
Steve Beauharnais - Rookie
Jamie Collins - Rookie
A.J. Edds - 4th season
News of note: New England will again be strong at linebacker thanks to Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, and Jerod Mayo. The trio had much to do with last year's No. 9 rushing defense, that allowed just 1630 yards.
And don't forget Dane Fletcher. The veteran's surgically repaired left ACL has had almost 12 months to heal and he's eager to return. Before the injury, suffered in last preseason's game against the Saints, Fletcher made an impact on first, second, and third downs, as well as in the kicking game. No, he hasn't played in a meaningful game since February of 2012, but that just means he'll be aggressively looking to prove his worth behind the Big Three.
Mayo, in his second season at weakside linebacker in the 4-3, led the AFC in tackles (147) in 2012. He added a career-high three sacks and four forced fumbles. Hightower had an impressive rookie campaign and is poised for that first-to-second year leap that Bill Belichick always talks about. As for Spikes, the unit's downhill thumper, 2013 is a contract year. He's one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league and can likely earn a big pile of money if he gets sharper in pass coverage. Will he be counting those shiny new coins in New England next season? Hard to say. Skipping weeks of OTA's to work out solo in Florida might have turned off some Patriots brass.
Funny, the team spent its first 2013 draft pick on Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins.
Standing at 6-3, 250-pounds, Collins is versatile and an explosive athlete. He could likely get snaps as a rusher or as a coverage player in sub-packages. It would be wise to groom him as Spikes' replacement in case the veteran skips town (or gets booted out) next year.
Steve Beauharnais was drafted further down the line at No. 235 overall. The 6-1, 240-pounder out of Rutgers would have to really impress during camp to wrest a roster spot away from someone. Special teams talent could help, but the Patriots will have solid depth in Collins and Fletcher.
A.J. Edds was actually on the 53-man roster in 2011. Don't feel badly if you don't remember; knee injuries have kept him off the field for most of the last two years. His versatility to line up at any linebacker position and presence on special teams are positives, but Edds is still a long shot.