Editor’s note: Each day this week, Jeff Howe will review the Patriots’ 2010 season and preview 2011 by breaking down each position. On Wednesday, he looked at the offensive line and defensive line. On Thursday, he’s looking at cornerbacks and linebackers.
When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, the core of their defense played at linebacker, which was headlined by guys like Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. After going through a transformation at the position, the Patriots appear to have their core in place for the next few years, and captain Jerod Mayo is at the front of that class.
The Patriots can still make some upgrades at linebacker, and they can improve in their own ways, too. Let’s scope out the position as the Pats head into the offseason.
Linebackers on Final Roster: Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Marques Murrell, Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Tracy White
Key Statistic: Mayo led the NFL with 193 tackles, and 115 were solo stops. Mayo also had two sacks, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, five quarterback hits and five passes defensed.
Hot Topic: The Patriots had a good rotation going among their linebackers, and that kept them fresh and allowed them to present offenses with different looks. However, they sometimes got into trouble with the inside linebacker alongside Mayo. Spikes emerged as the team’s essential starter before his four-game suspension, and Guyton subbed in on passing downs because he was a superior player in coverage.
Spikes will need to improve his read and recognition in order to become an every-down player, and it looked like Jets wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery broke through Spikes’ zone on the backbreaking 58-yard reception in the fourth quarter of their playoff meeting. At the very least, Spikes will always be a dominant run stopper, but if he can reach his potential and become an every-down player, it would ensure the Patriots are loaded at inside linebacker for years to come.
Offseason Question: All together now, will the Patriots try to add a pass-rushing outside linebacker?
The Patriots haven’t really had a wrecking ball at outside linebacker since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, and while a pass-rushing force would be an asset, you’ve got to wonder if Belichick truly cares for one. Only two Patriots have reached double digits in sacks during Belichick’s 11 seasons — Vrabel (12.5 sacks) in 2007 and Banta-Cain (10 sacks) in 2009 — and there have only been 11 occasions when a player has reached at least seven sacks. Of those 11 occasions, Vrabel (twice), Rosevelt Colvin (twice), Banta-Cain and Willie McGinest were the only outside linebackers. Break it down even more, and Belichick has only had four outside linebackers who have achieved seven-sack seasons in New England.
Does this mean Belichick is completely averse to adding a pass-rushing force? No, but if the trend is any indication, Belichick has higher priorities elsewhere. The Patriots have fewer needs this offseason than they’ve had in the past few, so maybe that will push Belichick toward drafting a pass-rushing outside linebacker in April.