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2012 Patriots Linebackers Preview: Experienced Youth

Jerod Mayo, as always, will be the key factor of the Patriots Linebacker core (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

At first glance, the Patriots’ linebacker position should excite fans of the team. They are a relatively young group, the oldest being Niko Koutouvides (31), and they already have a tremendous amount of experience. The young linebackers helped lead a struggling defense to the Super Bowl last season, and with a full year playing together under their belt, expect good things this upcoming season.

Read: Other 2012 Patriots Previews

Jerod Mayo: The Anchor

Jerod Mayo is entering his fifth year in the NFL. Last season was the first season in his young career where he did not register at least 100 tackles; he settled for 95. Mayo missed some time last season due to a knee injury, and his importance to the defense was apparent when he was on or off the field. Mayo plays a vital role in the play-calling for the defense, as well as putting players into the correct positioning.

Playing along side Mayo helped Gary Guyton perform better and he was able to parlay that into a nice contract from the rival Miami Dolphins. Mayo, similar to Vince Wilfork on the defensive line, makes those around him better. A key to this season will be keeping Mayo healthy and on the field. The more time Mayo plays the middle linebacker position, the better the Patriots’ chances of winning are.

Development of Linebackers

Over the past few years the Patriots have overhauled their linebacker position. There is no more Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, or Rosevelt Colvin. In their place are guys like Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, and the rookie Dont’a Hightower. Last season we witnessed the emergence of Ninkovich, Spikes, and Fletcher.

Rob Ninkovich resembled a second coming of Mike Vrabel. Not just because he is a white outside linebacker wearing the number 50, but because aside from catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady, he plays the game similarly to Vrabel. Ninkovich time and time again came through with a clutch sack, tackle for loss, forced/recovered fumble, or interception. He provided an outside linebacker presence that the team has been lacking over the past few seasons, and has given the position stability at the same time. Pair him with the young Dane Fletcher, and the outside linebacking core is set up nicely for the 2012-13 season.

Brandon Spikes emerged as an intimidating inside linebacker presence in the 2011-12 season. Spikes was utilized as a run stopper, tallying 47 tackles last season while only playing in eight games as he battled a knee injury. Spikes is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list during this preseason. The hope is to get him the rest now so he can be healthy and ready to contribute at the start of the season. The middle linebacker duo of Spikes and Mayo is a frightening concept to plan against for the rest of the NFL. For the Patriots and their fans, they will be fun to watch, assuming they both stay healthy.

There is a lot of hype surrounding first round draft choice Dont’a Hightower, but the beauty of having a lot of depth means they don’t need to rush his development. Hightower is a physically intimidating presence, standing at 6’4” and 270 pounds. Hightower can play inside or outside and has incredible speed for a man his size. In college he showed no problems exploding into the backfield to put a lick on the quarterback, and he also showed good lateral speed keeping up with running backs running out in the flats for receptions. Hightower will have the ability to learn behind the likes of Mayo, Spikes, Ninkovich, and Fletcher. He will contribute as early as this season, and thanks to the depth at the position and the coaching of Belichick and his staff, you can bet he will be put in the best possible position to succeed at this level.

Make Or Break Year: Jermaine Cunningham

Jermaine Cunningham came into the league the same year as Brandon Spikes and was expected to play a similar style to former Patriots’ great Willie McGinest. Cunningham was expected to play the outside linebacker position and get down on the line as an end occasionally to use his speed to rush the passer or disrupt runs in the backfield. After having a mediocre rookie season recording only 27 solo tackles in 15 games, and an even worse season last year playing in only nine games and recording just one tackle, this could very well be the last year Cunningham dawns the Patriots jersey. Belichick has shown no problems in cutting players who perform beneath their abilities in the past, Haynesworth last season and Chad Ochocinco Johnson this offseason. Unless Cunningham can get his act together and show the team and coaches that he can perform at this level, he could very well be joining the unemployment line. I expected Cunningham to be an impact player on this defense after he was drafted, but his performance his first two seasons does not instill a lot of confidence in him. If he does not have a strong camp and preseason, Cunningham may not even make the opening day roster.

About Steve Bastek - @sbastek12

Graduate of Bridgewater State University with a BA in Communication studies. I've been a Boston sports fan all my life and enjoy having the opportunity to write about it.

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