It was an interesting year for the Patriots' linebackers as they took on different responsibilities with more 4-3 elements in their defense. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were very good when they were healthy, and Rob Ninkovich continued to emerge as a reliable player on the edge.
There were some issues when their depth was tested due to injuries, which yielded more conservative schemes over the middle of the field, but the linebackers played better in the playoffs once they started to gain more consistency. They're in good shape going forward, but they still need another piece or two.
Linebackers on Final Roster: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich, Dane Fletcher, Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, Gary Guyton, Mike Rivera (practice squad), Christian Cox (injured reserve), Jeff Tarpinian (injured reserve)
Key Statistic: Mayo had 103 total tackles to lead the Patriots for the fourth consecutive season. He became the first player in franchise history to record at least 100 tackles in his first four seasons.
Hot Topic: Spikes played out of his mind in the playoffs and will be a star if he can stay on the field. He built some strong momentum as a rookie in 2010 before his suspension and then again in 2011 before a knee injury sidelined him for seven games. Those, obviously, were two unrelated events, but they're the only things that have seized Spikes' ability to really become a great player.
Spikes was so good in the playoffs that it actually became surprising when he was out of position or got blocked out of a gap. It might take another season or two before he becomes a complete linebacker who can contribute in the passing game, too, but he's got serious playmaking ability and can be a cornerstone of the defense if he stays on the field. The impressive thing is Spikes gets better on a game-by-game basis, so his potential over a full 16-game season could be tremendous.
Offseason Question: Will the Patriots add a pass-rushing outside linebacker in free agency or the draft?
Cue the chorus, because that's been the question for a few years now. Obviously, it's never been Bill Belichick's style to target a pass rusher early in the draft, but the Patriots have so few needs this offseason along with enough resources (draft picks, money) to address them. Plus, Belichick saw the benefits of an improved pass rush over the course of the 2011 season, and it would make sense to keep that momentum going through offseason acquisitions.
Regardless of Belichick's decision to utilize a 3-4 or 4-3 base defense, the Patriots could use an attacking outside linebacker who serves the purpose of disrupting the quarterback's rhythm. That's not a knock on what they've got, as their linebackers played well this season, but they could use a boost in the playmaking department.