Friday, June 20, 2014

Patriots' linebacker corps better through attrition, deft acquisitions

Leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, very few considered linebacker depth amongst the New England Patriots' pressing needs.

This despite the fact that weak side mainstay and defensive captain Jerod Mayo missed the last 10 games of the season after tearing his pectoral muscle, and not taking into account that starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was essentially fired late last season while the man that picked up some of Mayo's slack, Dane Fletcher, fled for Tampa - leaving the linebacking corps just one layer deep with six players lining the depth chart.
Anderson may turn out to be a key acquisition for New England

Granted, three of those players - Mayo, third-year man Dont'a Hightower and sophomore sensation Jamie Collins - comprise perhaps potentially the most dynamic 4-3 linebacking corps in the league, with second year players Steve Beauharnais and Ja'Gared Davis and Lions' retread Chris White, leftovers that formed a fairly non-descript group of backups...

...with Beauharnais perhaps the only leftover with enough upside to consider on the 2014 depth chart.

Of course, that's no longer the case, as coach Bill Belichick has pulled out the change jar and visited the local Good Will, coming out with some pretty decent additions to the depth chart at bargain-basement discounts - along with the usual assortment of undrafted rookie free agents.

Beauharnais projects as the primary backup for Hightower, who will be manning the middle linebacker position on early downs, then joining the ranks at the end of the defensive line as a pass rusher, with rookie Taylor McCuller, fifth year free agent Josh Hull and White looking to unseat Beauharnais.

The second year run-stuffer out of Rutgers showed plenty of upside in the 2013 preseason, enough even to make the 53 man roster and kept there even though he was a healthy scratch just about every week.  At 6' 1" and 240 pounds, Beauharnais has some lateral agility to play some strong side in a pinch, but he is best when moving forward and plugging the running lanes...

...while Hull and White are more effective in nickle roles covering the middle of the field in a Cover-3 type scenario.  All three are limited, but Beauharnais carries the most upside - which may or may not matter as far as roster spots are concerned.

Rookie Free agents Cameron Gordon out of Michigan and Mississippi State's Deontae Skinner are looking for spots behind Collins on the strong side, though they will have some competition from former New Orleans Saints' nickle rusher Will Smith who is looking to overcome an ACL tear in his right knee.

Smith has had nearly a full year to recover from his surgery to repair the ligament, which was torn as he attempted to switch from a defensive end to outside linebacker in training camp last season - which makes him just as much an unknown at the position as the rookies in some respects.

But for the Patriots, it is the weak side that Jerod Mayo holds down that is the most critically in need of depth, and where Davis joins fellow third-year man Darius Fleming in vying for the backup spot behind the Patriots' defensive captain - and while 49ers' retread Fleming has a leg up in experience and athleticism over Davis, all of the backup spots could be trumped by the presence of James Anderson.

Signing Anderson was a boon for Belichick, as he gives the Patriots an excellent combination of size, speed and experience in a spot that has been an albatross for the unit for the past several years, and has proven over the years that he can handle either wing.

He is faster than any other linebacker in the Patriots' stable (a solid 4.5 in the 40), and while he isn't the most physical of players, his numbers for the past four years suggest that he's no slouch against the run.  But the Patriots have to hope that he's not needed in that capacity -rather - that he become their "Big Nickle", a safety-sized linebacker (6' 3", 235 pounds) with speed and skill to take on backs and tight ends in the pattern.

The Bears declined to resign Anderson after he led the team in tackles, as many within the organization felt that he wore down late in the season - but while that may be true, perhaps the Bears didn't take into account that they used the 30 year old to excess when their linebacking corps became besieged by injury, and he ended up starting every week...

...mostly on the strong side where he did an admirable job on tight ends and came away with four passes defended - combined with over 100 tackles and ranking second on the team behind Julius Peppers in sacks with four, one could certainly make a case for the Bears pulling a Danny Woodhead with Anderson in not signing one of their bright spots on a struggling defense.

But Chicago's loss is Bill Belichick's gain, as Anderson's versatility gives the Hooded One more options in coverage than in recent years - and provides the type of veteran insurance that he would have given up a kidney for last season when Mayo went down, leaving the weak side truly weak.

Typically, the weak side linebacker in a 4-3 base defense has some autonomy in that his job is to read and react, to keep track of the running back floating out into position for the screen, help set the edge in the running game and to blitz when the opportunity arises - things that Anderson has shown an unwavering penchant for in his years with Carolina and last year in Chicago.

The Patriots were absolutely gashed by the screen play last season after Mayo went down, and tight ends typically had a field day against the assailed underneath coverage and the Patriots struggled to set the edge in the running game, resulting in the team bringing in greybeard Andre Carter to provide the hard edge in the nickle.

And therein lies the problem.  Carter, a defensive end, was clearly at the end of his rope, but still provided the hard edge and inspired pass rush while used sparingly in the half a season he was with the team - while the emergence of Collins on the strong side late in the season solved a lot of the tight end issues, but the team was still lacking in that big nickle package.

Anderson could be the answer, as he could provide depth on both wings and be the nickle coverage 'backer that could be moved around to provide the defense matchup options.

Fleming is another intriguing option that could provide weak side depth - as he is purely a situational pass rusher and plays best outside the tackles, setting the edge and chasing to the sidelines.  At 6' 2" and 255 pounds, Fleming has tremendous size but has torn the ACL in his left knee twice, and in consecutive offseason camps - but if he can make it out of camp, a roster spot is probably his to lose. 

Other than those two and perhaps Smith, the rest of the depth chart - shown below with the projected players making the 53 man roster in bold - are purely camp bodies due to their limitations.

WLB:  Jerod Mayo   Darius Fleming   Ja'Gared Davis
MLB:  Dont'a Hightower   Steve Beauharnais  Taylor McCuller  Josh Hull  Chris White          
SLB:   Jamie Collins  James Anderson  Will Smith   Cameron Gordon  Deontae Skinner

Of course, as with anything Patriots, the caveat always has to do with health - but with Mayo back to full health and with little injury concern among what is projected the top five linebackers, this unit appears to be ready for some excellent camp battles.

This is part 8 of 9 wrapping up the Patriots' offseason.  Part 9 will focus on what could possibly be one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

Part 1 of 9: New England Patriots' philosophies morphing back to a simpler time
Part 2 of 9: New England Patriots' offensive philosophy - Heavy on substance, not sexy style
Part 3 of 9: Patriots surround Brady with talent, just not how most envisioned
Part 4 of 9: Patriots' incumbent backs no roster locks as rookies ready to compete
Part 5 of 9: Belichick takes a mulligan with Patriots' pass catchers
Part 6 of 9: Belichick in the spirit (of 76) in regard to offensive line
Part 7 of 9: Defensive line status up in the air while injuries mend

Follow Michael on twitter: @MichaelHammpub

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