The New England Patriots had a contingency plan set up for when linebacker Brandon Spikes would leave in free agency.
The writing was on the wall for Spikes’ eventual departure as far back as April 2012, when the Patriots drafted a big, run-stuffing linebacker — Dont’a Hightower. Taking another linebacker, Jamie Collins, in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft made Spikes’ return in 2014 nearly impossible. It didn’t help that Spikes skipped optional organized team activities to work out on his own last spring.
The Patriots undoubtedly will miss Spikes’ fiery — and at times dangerous — demeanor on the field, but they’re clearly set at linebacker without him. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is returning from a torn pectoral muscle, Collins has another year under his belt, and Hightower already is assuming leadership responsibilities. All the Patriots are missing is the class clown.
“I guess all the jokes in the meetings. I don’t know,” Mayo said about what the Patriots will miss about Spikes, who signed with the Buffalo Bills. “Brandon is a great player. Obviously he’s not with us anymore. He brought a physicality to the game that is kind of unprecedented as far as in the run game. He’s a good player. But at the end of the day, he’s not a Patriot right now. We’re going to work with the guys we have in our room.”
Spikes had a way of playing slightly out of control that worked most of the time — when he would blow up a run play in the backfield — but not on every play — like when he’d overpursue. The Patriots could look to turn loose Hightower or Collins, while the other starting linebackers react to what they’re seeing as a play develops.
“You said that, I didn’t,” Mayo said about if another linebacker has to be set loose with Spikes gone. “I think we have guys in the room that are able to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played and go out there and make the same plays. I think we have a lot of talented guys in the room and in the front seven.”
The Patriots lack depth at linebacker with Spikes and Dane Fletcher, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now gone. They could look to address the position in the NFL draft after passing on the top linebackers in free agency. The 2014 NFL draft class is loaded with smaller, undersized players who excel in coverage, which is exactly what the Patriots need on third down and in sub packages.
Mayo wouldn’t put a timetable on his return, but he said he’s feeling better as he goes through the offseason workout program.
“I think every day, I feel like I?m getting stronger, getting better,” Mayo said. “But once again, I won?t know until I get out there and start really playing the game of football. If it was flag football, it?d be cool.”
Mayo is projected to be the Week 1 starter at weak-side linebacker.