A message to all running backs: Fear the Patriots linebackers.
The starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower has the potential to be the league’s best, sooner than later.
Each player brings a unique skill set to the defense, and all three are familiar with playing in pressure situations as former SEC stars.
Mayo, the team’s first-round pick in 2008, has developed into a consistent force during his time with the Pats.
Although he draws criticism for a lack of game-changing plays, the former tenth overall pick is well respected around the league, having earned All-Pro honors in 2010.
A tireless worker, Mayo’s speed, instincts and leadership make him an invaluable member of the defense. After spending most of his career as a 3-4 inside linebacker, he’s expected to play on the weak side in New England’s 4-3 scheme.
Utilizing Mayo as an off-the-line player maximizes his speed and should allow him to post huge tackle numbers once again.
Manning the middle of the defense is one of my all-time favorite Florida Gators: Brandon Spikes.
When the Patriots managed to snag the former All-American at the end of the second round in ’09, I was stoked. Spikes ran a poor 40 time at his pro day, subsequently costing him a spot in the first round.
Luckily for New England, his rare instincts, leadership skills and ability to stop the run made Spikes a worthy selection.
Although he’s missed time due to injury and suspension, there’s no denying Spikes’ impact when he’s in the lineup. Utilizing his menacing 6’2”, 255-pound frame, the third-year pro blows up fullbacks and offensive linemen to make plays in the backfield.
He’s somewhat limited to a two-down player because of his lack of foot speed, but Spikes is clearly a valuable member of the defense and should develop into one of the best run defenders in football.
Rounding out the starting three is New England’s second first-round choice in 2012—former Alabama star Dont’a Hightower.
What separates Hightower from other linebackers around the league is his incredible size. The Crimson Tide’s defensive leader checks in at an imposing 6’4”, 270 pounds and ran a 4.68 at the NFL Combine.
When watching Hightower on tape, it’s easy to see why Bill Belichick didn’t hesitate to move up and snatch him. Hightower’s versatility and knack for making big plays fits right in Belichick’s scheme and should make him an instant impact rookie.
As much as I dream about the damage that New England’s starting linebackers can do, I worry about the depth behind them.
Bobby Carpenter looked good in training camp, but surprisingly didn’t make the cut.
Mike Rivera, who didn’t exactly wow me in preseason action, earned a spot on the 53-man roster, although I would be afraid to see him pressed into game action.
Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham play more defensive end than linebacker at this point, but Ninko does have the ability to play strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 or outside in a 3-4.
If any of the starters suffered an injury, it would be a major blow to the Pats.
All three have suffered knee injuries during their young careers, most notably Hightower (torn ACL in ’09).
Assuming all three stay healthy, the Patriots could have three Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers manning the defense.