Patriots' Camp Competition: Inside Linebacker

With training camp about two months away (and in the midst of OTA's and mini-camps), I thought that it would be good to begin to look into the major competitions surrounding the Patriots at training camp this year.  Today, we start with what should be one of the top competitions with the inside linebacker position.

Overview

Heading into training camp, inside linebacker looks to be one of the top competitions.  While 3rd year inside linebacker Jerod Mayo looks like a sure thing to hold down a spot at one inside linebacker position, it remains to be seen which position he will take (strong or weak), and who will be playing besides him.  The top competitors for the last starting spot are Gary Guyton, Tyrone McKenzie, and rookie Brandon SpikesEric Alexander and Thomas Williams round out the position.

Projected Depth Chart

1. Jerod Mayo, #51 (WILB)

2. Brandon Spikes, #55 (SILB)

3. Gary Guyton, #59

4. Tyrone McKenzie, #44

Projected Cuts: Eric Alexander, #52; Thomas Williams, #48

Jerod Mayo, #51

Barring injury, Jerod Mayo will be holding down one of the two starting inside linebacker spots for the Patriots.  His rookie season, Mayo played the weak side, where he fit naturally.  Without having to stack and shed as much, Mayo roamed free, and used his athleticism to his advantage, on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.  Following Tedy Bruschi's retirement, Jerod Mayo was asked to slide over to the strong side, with Gary Guyton moving to the weak side.  While Guyton played well at his WILB position, Jerod Mayo had a tougher time fitting in as a strong inside linebacker due both to his skillset, and his injuries.  The best case scenario for Mayo would be to have one of the young guns (Spikes or McKenzie) step up and seize the strong inside linebacker position.  Chance to Start: 100% | Chance to Make Roster: 100%

Gary Guyton, #59

As a rookie in 2008, Gary Guyton played as a reserve inside linebacker, often coming in on passing downs and dropping into coverage.  In 2009, Gary Guyton became a full-time starter and was second on the team with 85 total tackles while playing and starting all sixteen games.  Guyton's downfall may be his position.  While he is a solid starter, he isn't a Jerod Mayo, and is also most comfortable on the weak side (doesn't have the brute strength to be effective on the strong side).  For Guyton to win a starting spot in 2010, he must really outshine Brandon Spikes and Tyrone McKenzie, while proving he shouldn't be taken off the field.  At a minimum, Guyton should still be a factor in pass coverage as well as 4-3 situations, and he will see his fair share of snaps in 2010.  Chance to Start: 15% | Chance to Make Roster: 99%

Rest of the group after the jump!

Tyrone McKenzie, #44

We all know the story with McKenzie: talented, hard working third round pick who had an unfortunate knee injury in rookie mini-camp last season causing him to "miss" the entire 2009 season.  The reason I put "miss" in quotations is because McKenzie, who coach Belichick lauded as being one of the most mature and hard working characters he's ever met in the pre-draft process, likely didn't take much time off due to the injury.  Knowing McKenzie's work ethic, it should be pretty obvious that he spent a lot of time in the weight room, film room, and with his playbook.  I would expect McKenzie, who should be fully recovered by now, to be ready both mentally and physically.  He is also reportedly up to 248 pounds.  He certainly has the bulk to play the strong side, have you seen the size of that man's neck?  While he isn't the fastest players, he also offers more speed than Brandon Spikes, and is able to do a little bit of everything. Chance to Start: 41% | Chance to Make Roster: 97%

Brandon Spikes, #55

Brandon Spikes was a second round pick of the Patriots just last month.  With his unique combination of size, strength, instincts, and smarts, he could very well play his way into a starting role with the Patriots in 2010.  Spikes is your prototypical thumper who can play strong inside linebacker.  While it may be hard to keep him in on passing situations because of his slow straight line speed (5.0 40 yard dash), he has good side to side movement.  Heck, he has got to be faster than guys like Junior Seau (at the end of his career) and Ted Johnson were.  Spikes has a good chance to start because he really complements Jerod Mayo well, and would allow Mayo to play on the weak side.  He's just got to prove he won't be a liability in coverage. Chance to Start: 43% | Chance to Make Roster: 100%

Eric Alexander, #52

Eric Alexander is a good special teams player, but he's never really been a factor as an every down inside linebacker.  Barring something drastic, he won't be starting for the Patriots in 2010.  He'll also have to battle for his roster spot with the likes of Thomas Williams and Marques Murrell for special teams.  If players like Guyton and McKenzie prove capable on the special teams level, Alexander could have a hard time holding onto a spot in 2010. Chance to Start: 1.5% | Chance to Make Roster: 25%

Thomas Williams, #48

The former USC product was selected in the fifth round out of USC by the Jaguars in the 2008 NFL Draft.  The Patriots added him to their practice squad in November, where he spent the rest of the regular season before being promoted to the 53 before the Patriots' playoff game against the Ravens.  Williams is a longer shot to make the roster, and will have to prove his worth through his play on special teams. Chance to Start: 0.5% | Chance to Make Roster: 3%

FINAL VERDICT: Due to Jerod Mayo's play on the weak side, I give the starting nod to Brandon Spikes who will be a natural fit as a SILB.  I think Tyrone McKenzie could play that role as well, but I gave it to Spikes just because of his instincts and his higher ceiling.  Gary Guyton will still have an integral rotation in the Patriots linebacker corps, just not as a starter.  I think McKenzie will see some time, but will also be a big part of special teams, which just may cost Eric Alexander his roster spot.

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