As we approach the halfway mark in the NFL season, the New England Patriots look great sitting atop the AFC East with an impressive 5-1 record. The record, however, does not tell the whole story about this Patriot team that took another big blow Tuesday when it was announced that Jerod Mayo will miss the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Mayo is not only the Patriots’ leading tackler, but he is also one of the defensive captains whose role was even bigger when Vince Wilfork went down Week 4. Now Mayo is done and the other linebackers are going to have to step up on the field, and players like Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower who were captains in college need to take on a role of leadership in the Patriot front seven.
Spikes has already seen his role increase due to his run stopping ability and impact he can make with Wilfork out. He will be seeing even more snaps now in situations he might not always play in due to the fact he is one of the most experienced in the linebacking group. Hightower, who is in his second year and a former first round pick out of Alabama, now has the opportunity to show how valuable he is. Spikes is not as athletic and cannot cover ground like Mayo can, but Hightower can. He will be the player taking over the most responsibility from Mayo since he is a similar style LB. Hightower is a good player who shows great potential, and this is the time to go out there and show how good he is.
After Spikes and Hightower take on more of a leadership and play-calling role, it will need to be either rookie Jamie Collins or special teams standout Dane Fletcher to step up for this defense. Collins has very little experience and is still considered raw, but with that said he is an amazing athlete and could be very valuable, especially in pass coverage and pass rush if he can limit his mistakes. Fletcher is a solid player who showed great potential in the past but lost the 2012 season to a knee injury. Fletcher might be the least athletic of the bunch, but he is very smart and always in good position to make a play. Bill Belichick has always expressed how much he likes Fletcher, and he will get every opportunity to keep a starting job.
For a very good defense, it hurts to lose two cornerstone players. But that’s how the game goes, and it’s time for the young players who were drafted high for a reason to step in and show they are worth it. I look for Hightower breaking out in Mayo’s absence. He has all the tools to be great in the NFL and there would be no better time to show that to everyone. As for a leadership side, Devin McCourty is the only defensive captain left. He will try to fill the role, but I look for Spikes, Hightower and Chandler Jones to step up and become vocal leaders in this locker room. This was a young team coming into the year, and now with two of the eldest veterans on the team going down, the young players must show poise beyond their years and help lead this defense moving forward.