The New England Patriots ignored their lack of depth at linebacker in the 2014 NFL draft, instead electing to sign some of the top undrafted free agents at the position.
The Patriots took a similar route while addressing their need at tight end, but they took high-upside players with a lack of college production — Justin Jones and Asa Watson. The Patriots picked up two senior captains and a three-year starter at linebacker, however, and all three players have a decent chance of cracking the Patriots’ 53-man roster out of training camp.
Over the next two weeks, NESN.com will look at each position to see how the Patriots’ depth chart stacks up now that the draft and the undrafted free-agent signing period are over. We’ll break down roster locks, players on the bubble and practice-squad candidates.
Check out how the Patriots look at linebacker.
Roster locks: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins
On the bubble: Steve Beauharnais, Chris White, Darius Fleming, Josh Hull
Practice-squad candidates: Cameron Gordon, James Morris, Deontae Skinner, Ja’Gared Davis
It’s a slightly sad state of affairs that the only three roster locks at linebacker are the starters. The Patriots’ depth gets shallow after Mayo, Hightower and Collins, who won’t have any competition for their starting roles this summer.
Mayo likely will start at weak-side linebacker for the third straight year, while Hightower will play in Brandon Spikes’ old sport at middle linebacker. That leaves Collins at strong-side linebacker, where he can blitz off the edge and cover tight ends. Hightower and Collins have expressed interest in blitzing or rushing on third down, which could leave all three players on the field on third down, especially with a lack of quality depth at defensive end.
Moving on to the reserves, Beauharnais could see an increased role in the defense this season, especially if the Patriots suffer any injuries. Beauharnais played just one defensive snap last year, and he was inactive for most games. Beauharnais is slightly undersized, but he was a three-year starter at Rutgers who showed some promise last summer as a rookie.
White and Hull likely won’t contribute much on defense, but they add special teams depth. It’s possible that both players are competing for one special-teams linebacker role.
Fleming was viewed as more of an undersized edge rusher than a drop-back linebacker coming out of Notre Dame in 2012. He’s missed his first two NFL seasons with torn ACLs suffered during the summer. Fleming was a fifth-round pick by the 49ers in 2012, so there is some promise in the former Golden Domer if he can stay healthy.
Gordon also is viewed as more of an edge rusher, but he started his freshman season at Michigan as a safety, so he has some coverage skills. The former senior captain also has plenty of versatility to play special teams.
Morris was a four-year starter at Iowa and has the best chance of the rookies to fill depth at inside linebacker. Morris was extremely productive with the Hawkeyes, especially in his senior year, when he had 106 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
On film, Morris resembles a poor man’s Dont’a Hightower — he’s adept in coverage, a good blitzer and tends to show plus instincts, taking direct angles on his tackles. Morris flashed some nice athleticism during the pre-draft process — running a 4.67-second 40-yard dash and 6.94-second three-cone drill — but those quicks didn’t always show up in games.
Skinner isn’t quite as athletic as Fleming, Gordon or Morris, but he was a three-year starter in the SEC at Mississippi State. Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com writes that Skinner primarily played outside linebacker with the Bulldogs “but his size and speed might push him to the interior.”
Davis didn’t play any defensive snaps for the Patriots in 2013, but he was a quality special teamer coming off the practice squad.
Expect the Patriots to keep six or seven linebackers on the 53-man roster and one or two more on the practice squad.