With a handful of young and developing linebackers, the position is a bit of a work in progress for the Patriots. They've got the opportunity to use a few different personnel groupings, so which combination of inside linebackers will best suit New England's 3-4 base defense in 2010?
The Patriots essentially have four capable starters for two spots: Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Tyrone McKenzie and rookie Brandon Spikes. Eric Alexander, Rob Ninkovich and Thomas Williams could also fill in on an emergency basis, provided they make the team, of course.
Last season, the Patriots' best inside linebacker combination featured Mayo and Guyton, but there is more depth in 2010. McKenzie will make his NFL debut after a knee injury wiped out his rookie year, and Spikes figures to play an important role after a decorated collegiate career at Florida.
At first glance, it seems likely that Mayo and Guyton will team up again on the inside. Mayo and Guyton were the Patriots' two leading tacklers last season — although Guyton has his critics in that department — with 113 and 93 total tackles, respectively.
However, Guyton's speed might make him an even greater asset at outside linebacker, where the Patriots don’t have as much depth. If head coach Bill Belichick is comfortable with pairing McKenzie or Spikes with Mayo, the Patriots should seriously consider moving Guyton to the outside.
After releasing controversial outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, the Patriots have a hole to fill in their lineup. Tully Banta-Cain is a candidate to take a chunk of snaps on one side, but New England is looking at rookie Jermaine Cunningham, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Marques Murrell and Ninkovich to fill in on the other side.
Clearly, the Pats would like to get instant production out of Cunningham, who was selected nine spots ahead of Spikes in the second round, but Cunningham is looking at a development process while transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker. He might be an asset on the pass rush, but his coverage skills will naturally take time.
With that, Guyton's experience might actually be more of an asset at outside linebacker than on the inside. Then, it would become a competition between McKenzie and Spikes to pair up with Mayo.
Either way, the Patriots have effectively gotten younger and more versatile at linebacker. There might be some trial and error involved in finding the right combinations, but their list of options is definitely intriguing.
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