Patriots linebackers are strong leaders
NFL. The heart of the New England defense is as strong as ever.
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.
Collins is back as one of the Patriots’ most vocal leaders on defense.