Editor?s note: NESN.com will go position by position to break down the Patriots? depth chart heading into the 2015 offseason. Next up: the defensive line.
Jerod Mayo could do the New England Patriots a huge favor this offseason.
The Patriots linebacker is set to be one of the Patriots? highest paid players in 2015 with a $10.6 million salary cap hit, and the team won a Super Bowl without him after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6. If Mayo is willing to extend his contract and take a pay cut, then it could help the Patriots keep most of their 2014 Super Bowl XLIX-winning roster together.
It was the second consecutive season that ended early for Mayo, who tore his pectoral muscle in 2013. The Patriots have two younger top-tier linebackers in Dont?a Hightower and Jamie Collins, who also can serve as valuable bargaining chips when New England is attempting to restructure Mayo.
2015 DEPTH CHART: Dont?a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Darius Fleming, Deontae Skinner, Cameron Gordon, Rufus Johnson
2015 FREE AGENTS: Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, Chris White, James Morris (exclusive rights)
The Patriots would be fine going into the season with Hightower and Collins as their starting linebackers while acquiring a third player in free agency or the draft. The Patriots stay in a nickel alignment for the majority of their defensive snaps, which lessens the need for a third top-tier linebacker.
Hightower, Collins and Mayo can co-exist, however, if the veteran captain is willing to take a restructured contract. All three players are excellent pass rushers, and the Patriots showed interest in using Hightower as an edge defender early in 2014.
Ayers also could be used as a bargaining chip while discussing a lowered salary with Mayo. Ayers was impressive in two roles in 2014 after the Patriots acquired him from the Tennessee Titans before the trade deadline.
The former second-round pick was a productive pass rusher while Chandler Jones nursed a hip injury, and he served as the team?s third linebacker when Jones returned. He offers the Patriots valuable versatility, as he showed when he intercepted San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers while dropping back in coverage from defensive end.
Ayers will undoubtedly come cheaper than Mayo next season, since he was shipped out of Tennessee for a mere exchange of draft picks.
The Patriots would only receive $4.6 million in cap relief by outright releasing Mayo, which seems unlikely given his stature with the team as a captain and vocal leader. There?s little chance that Mayo would stay with the Patriots in 2016 on his current contract, however, when he’s on the books for another $10.4 million, so agreeing to a longer deal — possibly similar to the one that Vince Wilfork established last offseason — would make a lot of sense if he intends to continue his career with the team past one season.
It doesn?t make sense for Mayo to make upwards of $10 million, however, since Hightower and Collins are younger, less injury prone and more versatile.
Hightower, Collins and Mayo all are very smart players who can swap between 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses. Hightower, Mayo and Collins can play all three positions in a 4-3, and the two younger defenders can swap between inside and outside linebacker in a 3-4. The Patriots also have edge rusher Rob Ninkovich, like Ayers, who can play strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 and outside linebacker in a 3-4, so the team can pull depth from another position if needed.
Casillas also was acquired before the trade deadline and was solid as a special-teamer and reserve linebacker. He?s not an ideal No. 3 linebacker, but he?s fine in a depth role if the Patriots choose to bring him back.
Fleming and Skinner are young and inexperienced but showed promise in 2014. Gordon was on injured reserve for the entire season. James Morris is likely to come back, since he’s an exclusive rights free agent. Morris tore his ACL last summer during the Patriots’ final preseason game.
The Patriots have two great long-term options in Hightower and Collins, and they should be able to work something out with Mayo, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team acquire another linebacker early in the NFL draft. The Patriots constantly are planning ahead, and they like to have plenty of versatile options at the position.
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