Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker

February 18, 2016 - 1:00 am
Categories: 

[caption id="attachment_89014" align="alignright" width="350"]When he was healthy, Jamie Collins was one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the league in 2015. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) When he was healthy, Jamie Collins was one of the most dynamic defensive playmakers in the league in 2015. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)[/caption] With the Patriots done for the season, we've got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand and what figures to be the strengths and weaknesses for the team at that position going forward. We started our overview with the quarterbacks, the secondary and the running backs. Now, it's the linebackers. Depth chart: Jamie Collins (90 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, 6 passes defensed, 5 forced fumbles), Dont'a Hightower (62 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed), Jerod Mayo (49 tackles, 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed), Jonathan Freeny (43 tackles, 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, 1 pass defensed), Jon Bostic (1 tackle, 1 quarterback hit), Eric Martin (3 special teams tackles), Darius Fleming (2 tackles), Dekoda Watson (2 special teams tackles), Dane Fletcher. Overview: In 2015, when the Collins/Hightower duo was healthy and on its game, there were few linebacking duos who were better. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Collins was a do-everything freak of nature who could work the "A" gap and run with tight ends and running backs in coverage, while the 6-foot-2, 266-pound Hightower was the next generation thumper/leader that assumed more of a leadership role with Mayo on the sidelines. One of the issues was that they both missed a chunk of the season -- Collins was out four games with a mystery illness while Hightower also missed four games, primarily because of knee issues. As a result, when they weren't in there, the the lack of positional depth showed. While there's a collection of backups/special teamers that make up the rest of the depth chart, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Patriots go after another linebacker -- specifically, one who excels in coverage -- to take some of the workload off the likes of Collins. In the end, the good news is the fact that with the NFL being a pass-first league and the New England secondary a highly competitive group, linebacker depth isn't that big a deal, especially when you have a pair of defenders like Collins and Hightower holding things down at linebacker in a nickel defense. What the Patriots do have to deal with is the significant drop-off between the elite-level talent in Collins and Hightower and the second-teamers, especially if there's an injury. That's the main reason New England needs an infusion of depth at the position this offseason. Who will stay? Collins and Hightower are the two guarantees to stick. In addition, it's likely that at least two of the rest of the group who served as backups/special teamers last year (Bostic, Freeny, Fleming, Watson and Martin) will also be around, with the rest likely relegated to the practice squad. And veteran Dane Fletcher returned prior to the start of the 2015 season, but spent the year on the sidelines because of a knee issue. If he's healthy, he'll be part of the conversation as well. Who will go? After eight seasons in New England, it's time to say so long to Mayo. Even though he was not the same performer he has been in his first four seasons in the league, he was still one of the unquestioned leaders of the locker room, a rare individual who could command respect from offensive and defensive players alike. While the Patriots should have no issues replacing him from an on-field perspective -- in some ways, Hightower has evolved into Mayo 2.0 -- his leadership skills will leave a void on the roster that will be tough to replace. By the numbers: 9.5, 3 -- Despite the fact that he missed four games in the middle of the 2015 season because of a mystery illness, Collins is the only player in the league who had at least 9.5 sacks and three interceptions since the start of the 2014 season.