Brandon Spikes‘ trainer told NFL Network the fourth-year linebacker skipped Patriots OTAs to become a three-down linebacker by getting in the best shape of his life. That might be the case, but so far, it doesn’t seem like the Patriots will allow Spikes to show his skills on third down.
Spikes is one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league. And while he seems to have a nose for the ball in coverage, his lack of mobility limits his upside in the nickel defense. That’s why Spikes may be limited to playing in the base this season.
Last year, when the nickel corner came on the field, Spikes and Dont’a Hightower split time coming off the field. Jerod Mayo missed just 44 snaps in 16 games last season, playing 1,073 total snaps. Spikes missed one game and played 742 snaps, and Hightower missed two games, playing 579 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. The team did not have a specialized cover linebacker, and they struggled picking up running backs and tight ends.
Before Spikes skipped the Patriots’ voluntary OTA sessions, the team had already drafted Jamie Collins in the second round of the NFL draft and signed Adrian Wilson in free agency. Both players have received looks with the first team in the Patriots’ sub packages at linebacker.
Wilson usually plays strong safety, but he has replaced Spikes and Hightower during training camp in a hybrid linebacker role. Spikes and Hightower will come off the field, a second safety and slot corner will come on and Wilson will move down to linebacker. That may actually be Wilson’s strongest role this season. He struggles taking on the back end of the field and works best the closer he gets to the line of scrimmage.
Collins has also played with the first-team defense in the nickel package. He excelled in both pass rush and pass coverage at Southern Miss, so it would make sense that his role would come in obvious passing situations in the nickel package. So far, it seems the Patriots are working Collins heavily in the cover linebacker role, rather than in edge-rushing situations. If the team feels Collins is ready to play, that may not bode well for Spikes or Hightower.
While Spikes is limited to his role as either a middle or inside linebacker though, Hightower can kick over to outside linebacker or even edge rusher to get more snaps. If Collins proves himself good enough in coverage and against the run, it could mean less snaps for Spikes even in the base defense.
Hightower could kick over to middle linebacker from strong-side backer, Collins could play the strong side and Mayo could keep his role on the weak side. Spikes’ contract runs out after this season, and while it’s entirely possible the Patriots drafted Collins to rush off the edge or merely play in the nickel defense, if the rookie plays well enough, it could mean Spikes doesn’t get extended after this year.
Mayo was taken in the first round in 2008, Spikes in the second round in 2010, Hightower in the first round in 2012 and Collins in the second round in 2013. That’s a lot of top draft picks to spend on linebackers.
The Patriots do need a third-down rusher, though, too. So, if Collins starts taking more reps on the edge at either outside linebacker or defensive end, Spikes could still have a spot on this team next season, albeit still in a more limited role.
Regardless, there will be fewer snaps to go around as the Patriots acquire more high-quality players. As long as the Wilson-to-linebacker experiment goes well (it didn’t when the team tried the same move with John Lynch in 2008), there will be five players sharing snaps at the postition, while there were only four last season. The Patriots may also try to incorporate a third-down edge rusher, something they did not have last season, which could mean less snaps for Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
If Spikes is hoping to get a big contract after this season, it likely won’t be coming from the Patriots with so many cheaper options already on the roster. If Ninkovich gets an extension, the chance for Spikes to re-up decreases. Ninkovich can play multiple positions in the 4-3 and 3-4.
This preseason will be a big one for Collins. While we assume he will take on a large role after being drafted in the second round, it’s always possible he doesn’t assimilate to the defense.