The additions to the New England Patriots’ secondary have received a lot of attention this offseason. However, for defensive backs like Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to really flourish in their first years wearing Patriot blue, the team’s linebackers must step up and be a collective force. The Patriots will start the season with an exciting mix of experience and promising youth at linebacker that should translate to success for the entire defense.
The projected starting linebackers in the Pats’ current 4-3 scheme is Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins, with James Anderson and Steve Beauharnais first off the bench. Let’s take a closer look at each of these players.
It pretty much goes without saying — Mayo is the focal point of the Patriots’ defense. This was evident last season when Mayo went down with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 6 and missed the rest of the season, as the defense was noticeably worse without him. Like a true leader would, Mayo attended team meetings and traveled with the team for the duration of 2013. He has as much of a voice in the Pats’ locker room as Tom Brady.
At times, Hightower was the poster boy for the Patriots’ struggles on defense last year, as he took on the bulk of Mayo’s workload. That being said, he steadily improved as the season progressed and finished on a high note in the playoffs. Hightower has shown that he can be a solid three-down linebacker with a knack for making big plays, like his interception of Andrew Luck in the Divisional Round last year.
Collins has arguably the highest ceiling of any player on the Patriots’ roster. He is a matchup nightmare for offenses at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds with top-end speed for a linebacker. Collins’ athletic ability allows him to quell the league’s big tight ends, but he is also a threat as a pass rusher. After winning the Patriots’ “Workout Warrior” award this offseason, Collins couldn’t be on a better track entering his sophomore season.
Entering his ninth NFL season after stints with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, Anderson isn’t expected to unseat Hightower or Collins in training camp. However, look for the veteran to carve out a role as a substitute in passing situations, as he possesses excellent anticipation and quickness. Anderson is only one season removed from leading the Bears in tackles, so he definitely will be factor in the linebacker rotation.
Another product of the Rutgers pipeline that Bill Belichick loves to draw from, Beauharnais is a very unproven player heading into his second season. That aside, the Patriots seem to have plans for Beauharnais, as he has been leading defensive huddles this offseason whenever Mayo is taking breaks. Beauharnais’ strength in run defense could help to fill the void left by Brandon Spikes.
The experience of Mayo and Anderson paired with the youth of Hightower, Collins, and Beauharnais gives the Patriots an ideal group of top linebackers heading into 2014. Mayo provides star power, but he likely won’t be the only household name in the unit if Collins plays to his potential. And Hightower still feels like he has something to prove after being criticized throughout last season.
The potential is there for these players to coalesce into a formidable linebacker corps. This unit is the catalyst that will allow the secondary to make plays and give the Patriots a championship-caliber defense.