Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Linebacker
This is the third in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots by Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry as we head into the offseason. Today's position: Linebackers
Dont’a Hightower, 25 (signed thru 2016)
Jamie Collins, 25 (signed thru 2016)
Darius Fleming, 26 (signed thru 2016)
Jerod Mayo, 29 (signed thru 2017)
Jon Bostic, 24 (signed thru 2016)
Jonathan Freeny, 26 (signed thru 2016)
Eric Martin, 24 (signed thru 2016)
Dane Fletcher, 29 (signed thru 2015)
Dekoda Watson, 27 (signed thru 2015)
Kevin Snyder, 23, (signed thru 2016)
James Vaughters, 22, (signed thru 2016)
This is another position where the Patriots are beautifully set up for the short-term but are about to see it get a bit more complicated. Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins are both under contract for 2016 but the team has to consider extensions for these Pro Bowl-level defenders. Hightower’s in a good spot, making more than $7 million this year; Collins will make less than $1 million. Collins should be the priority. As the team considers deals that will likely command more than $10 million per year for each guy, durability and health have to be entered into the equation. Hightower’s had shoulder and knee injuries the past two seasons and played 24 of 32 regular-season games; Collins was laid low by an illness that cost him four games in 2015. Meanwhile, Jerod Mayo, who’s been a staple of the linebacker group since 2008, is likely going to be a cap casualty. The 29-year-old will probably find a home in either Tennessee or Detroit, where former Patriots’ executives hold GM jobs, but Mayo’s departure is a fait accompli. The depth behind Collins and Hightower starts with Jonathan Freeny. He met expectations in his first season with the team. Jon Bostic, a former second-rounder in Chicago, didn’t carve much of a niche in New England after the Patriots dealt for him during the season. Darius Fleming, at 26 and entering his third year with the team, hasn’t established himself as more than a role player. The Patriots will probably look to add at this position through the draft as opposed to free agency since it’s not an immediate concern, but it could be one that gets early attention in May.
As is the case for the Patriots at their safety and cornerback spots, the top end of their linebacker depth chart should look very similar in 2016. When healthy, Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower are full-time players as their versatile skill sets allow them to thrive in just about every situation. And while the Patriots could move to lock up one or both this offseason, I wouldn't be surprised if they looked elsewhere for depth in the coming weeks and months. With Jerod Mayo likely moving on, having an experienced third linebacker in the mix could help guard against either Collins or Hightower missing time.
Perhaps that third man in is Jonathan Freeny, who filled in for both Collins and Hightower last season when they missed time. Perhaps it's Jonathan Bostic, the former second-round pick who is still just 24 years old (a year-and-a-half younger than Collins) but had trouble finding his way in the Patriots defense after arriving to Foxboro mid-season. Perhaps it's Dane Fletcher, a soon-to-be free agent coming off of a season on the physically unable to perform list who may be the backup linebacker most familiar with New England's defense given the four seasons (2010-13) he played with the team. Perhaps it's someone else. Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, someone the Patriots met with last offseason, is scheduled to be a free agent again. Denver's off-the-ball linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall could also be available. Regardless of what the Patriots do, they probably won't over-extend for a player at this spot. They already have two big-ticket players who are going to eat up the majority of playing time. But in case of an injury, or in the event that either Collins or Hightower are gone after 2016, the Patriots could use some depth here. If they're proactive in finding another linebacker -- either in free agency or the draft -- that could help keep them from scrambling if a need pops up in 12 months. The minds at One Patriot Place always like to be prepared, even when they look set at a certain spot. Last offseason, Belichick added a talented defensive end in Jabaal Sheard despite having two surefire starters at that position already under contract. If the right player is available, I wouldn't be shocked if a similar approach was taken at linebacker. They don't have many glaring needs on this side of the ball going into 2016 so building on their strength at linebacker could become a priority.