Pa­tri­ots lineback­ers are strong lead­ers

NFL. The heart of the New Eng­land de­fense is as strong as ever.

Metro USA (Boston) - - FRONT PAGE - JIMMY TOSCANO @Jim­myToscano sports@metro.us

There are plenty of ques­tions to be asked when it comes to the makeup of this Pa­tri­ots team.

Will a cor­ner­back emerge op­po­site Mal­colm But­ler? How will a young de­fen­sive line hold up in its first sea­son with­out Vince Wil­fork? Do the Pa­tri­ots have enough healthy wide re­ceivers to be­gin the sea­son? Who’s throw­ing the freakin’ ball in Week 1?

But one unit that looks as strong as ever is the Pa­tri­ots lineback­ers.

If healthy, the starters are set. Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are the clear-cut starters in the heart of the Pa­tri­ots de­fense. With the un­cer­tainty in other ar­eas of the field, the Pa­tri­ots can count on these three to carry some of the load.

Mayo re­turns to the team af­ter tear­ing his patella ten­don dur­ing the 2014-15 sea­son af­ter just six games. The year be­fore, he tore his pec­toral mus­cle af­ter six games. Yes, in­juries have kept Mayo off the field over the last two sea­sons, but he ap­pears to be ready to go this sea­son. In Mayo, the Pa­tri­ots get a de­fen­sive leader and one of their most de­pend­able play­ers back on the field.

In Mayo’s last healthy sea­son, he racked up 147 tack­les. In the in­jury-short­ened sea­sons that fol­lowed, he still av­er­aged nine tack­les per game. There’s no rea­son to be­lieve he can’t tackle with the best of them ... un­less the two young lineback­ers to each side of him gob­ble up the tack­les first.

Hightower, en­ter­ing his fourth sea­son, has im­proved in ev­ery sin­gle one of them and has taken on a big­ger role each time. Hightower had sported the red non­con­tact jersey to be­gin camp, but no longer needs to wear it.

It didn’t take long for Collins to prove he’s a three-down line­backer and an ath­letic freak. He was also the com­mu­ni­ca­tor on de­fense last year, get­ting the all-im­por­tant green dot on his hel­met, which in­di­cates the player re­lay­ing sig­nals from the coaches on the side­line.

There’s a con­sid­er­able drop from the start­ing lineback­ers to the rest, but that makes for some healthy com­pe­ti­tion in camp. Dane Fletcher, who be­gan his ca­reer with the Pats, is back but cur­rently on the PUP (phys­i­cally un­able to per­form) list.

Four-year vet­eran and new­comer Jonathan Freeny got the start at mid­dle line­backer last week­end against the Saints and fin­ished with four tack­les, while fel­low line­backer James Mor­ris led the team in tack­les with six.

Mor­ris is look­ing for a redo on his rookie sea­son af­ter an in­jury in pre­sea­son forced him to sea­son-end­ing IR. Both Freeny and Mor­ris might have a heads-up on the rest of the com­pe­ti­tion, which in­cludes Eric Martin, Dar­ius Flem­ing, Dekoda Wat­son, Ru­fus John­son, L.J. Fort, Cameron Gor­don and DJ Lynch.

/ GETTY IM­AGES

Collins is back as one of the Pa­tri­ots’ most vo­cal lead­ers on de­fense.

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