State of the Position: Linebackers

A message to all running backs: Fear the Patriots linebackers.

The starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower has the potential to be the league’s best, sooner than later.

Each player brings a unique skill set to the defense, and all three are familiar with playing in pressure situations as former SEC stars.

Mayo, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, has developed into a consistent force during his time with the Pats.

Although he draws criticism for a lack of game-changing plays, the former tenth overall pick is well respected around the league, having earned All-Pro honors in 2010.

A tireless worker, Mayo’s speed, instincts and leadership make him an invaluable member of the defense. After spending most of his career as a 3-4 inside linebacker, he’s expected to play on the weak side in New England’s 4-3 scheme.

Utilizing Mayo as an off-the-line player maximizes his speed and should allow him to post huge tackle numbers once again.

Manning the middle of the defense is one of my all-time favorite Florida Gators: Brandon Spikes.

When the Patriots managed to snag the former All-American at the end of the second round in ’09, I was stoked. Spikes ran a poor 40 time at his pro day, subsequently costing him a spot in the first round.

Luckily for New England, his rare instincts, leadership skills and ability to stop the run made Spikes a worthy selection.

Although he’s missed time due to injury and suspension, there’s no denying Spikes’ impact when he’s in the lineup. Utilizing his menacing 6’2”, 255-pound frame, the third-year pro blows up fullbacks and offensive linemen to make plays in the backfield.

He’s somewhat limited to a two-down player because of his lack of foot speed, but Spikes is clearly a valuable member of the defense and should develop into one of the best run defenders in football.

Rounding out the starting three is New England’s second first-round choice in 2012—former Alabama star Dont’a Hightower.

What separates Hightower from other linebackers around the league is his incredible size. The Crimson Tide’s defensive leader checks in at an imposing 6’4”, 270 pounds and ran a 4.68 at the NFL Combine.

When watching Hightower on tape, it’s easy to see why Bill Belichick didn’t hesitate to move up and snatch him. Hightower’s versatility and knack for making big plays fits right in Belichick’s scheme and should make him an instant impact rookie.

As much as I dream about the damage that New England’s starting linebackers can do, I worry about the depth behind them.

Bobby Carpenter looked good in training camp, but surprisingly didn’t make the cut.

Mike Rivera, who didn’t exactly wow me in preseason action, earned a spot on the 53-man roster, although I would be afraid to see him pressed into game action.

Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham play more defensive end than linebacker at this point, but Ninko does have the ability to play strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 or outside in a 3-4.

If any of the starters suffered an injury, it would be a major blow to the Pats.

All three have suffered knee injuries during their young careers, most notably Hightower (torn ACL in ’09).

Assuming all three stay healthy, the Patriots could have three Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers manning the defense.

State of the Position: Linebackers

State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.

Today we will examine the linebackers.

It seems like the same old story: Who will put pressure on the passer?

Ever since the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the Patriots’ linebackers have taken a significant step back in both talent and production.

Bill Belichick broke his trend of passing on linebackers in round one by selecting Jerod Mayo in 2008.

All he’s done since then is earn Rookie of the Year honors and All-Pro status last season.

In 2010 he took two Florida linebackers: Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes. Both players contributed early on, with Spikes stepping in as an effective run stuffer.

Cunningham put pressure on the quarterback, but clearly has to finish better.

However, both players look like they will fill two starting spots in this linebacker corps for years to come.

Beyond Cunningham and Spikes, a 2010 undrafted free agent proved to be better than his draft status would indicate.

Former Montana State defensive end Dane Fletcher showed playmaking ability as a subpackage linebacker, recording 23 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in limited duty.

With Mayo, Spikes, Fletcher and Gary Guyton filling out the depth chart, the inside linebacker spot is a strong point for this young defense.

All four players are still maturing and can contribute in specific roles as Guyton and Fletcher are better suited for passing downs while Spikes is a two-down beast.

However, the real problem still remains at outside linebacker.

Last year, Tully Banta-Cain entered the season as one starter after posting double-digit sacks in 2009. Apparently someone forgot to remind him that over half of those came against the Buffalo Bills’ pathetic offensive line.

By season’s end, Banta-Cain was no longer starting as journeyman Rob Ninkovich earned more playing time.

Like Fletcher, Ninkovich is a hard worker who made some big plays, highlighted by his two-interception effort against the Dolphins.

While he may not have great upside, I think Ninkovich definitely has the ability to be an effective player in a rotation.

Beyond Ninkovich and Cunningham, the other options are underwhelming at best.

Eric Moore made an impact in limited duty after being signed as a free agent, but there are questions about his ability to hold up over a 16-game season.

Sixth-round pick Markell Carter has some physical ability, but he will quickly realize the jump in competition from Arkansas State and the NFL is drastic.

Overall, without a proven pass rusher, this group is below average.

State of the Position Grade: Inside Linebacker: B+    Outside Linebacker: C-