Almost two weeks into training camp, the Patriots still have yet to play their first preseason game, yet we are getting some kind of picture of what the Patriots roster could look like September 12th against the Bengals.
One position that is still unclear as ever is the inside linebacker position. This isn't a bad thing, it's simply a matter of quality of depth. Going into training camp, I think that everyone just expected the Patriots to take four linebackers to the regular season; Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Tyrone McKenzie, and Brandon Spikes. Jerod Mayo was going to start at one spot, and the big question was how playing time would be partitioned in the spot next to him between the other three.
So far, that question has yet to be answered. Gary Guyton went down with an injury early in training camp, and rookie Brandon Spikes has been running with the ones ever since. Spikes, to this point, has arguably been the most impressive rookie in camp. He has been stuffing the run, getting to the quarterback, and playing outstanding coverage. Pretty impressive for a player who was dropped to the 4th-6th round on some teams' draft boards coming out of Florida.
Bill Belichick has also been impressed by Spikes' performance thus far in training camp, saying he was "interesting" to coach. Belichick also noted, "I think he's got some unique skills. For a tall player, I think he has more quickness than most guys, and probably a little more leverage than a lot of other tall players. He does a lot of things well. It's kind of not by the book, but it's effective." Belichick later added more, saying that Spikes "sees some things that I'm not sure everybody sees... he's an instinctive player and he sees things. I don't know it's the textbook way you'd read the plays, but he reads them."
Spikes is a big, physical, smart, instinctive, quicker-than-advertised inside linebacker who has already taken a vocal leadership role with the team, less than four months after being drafted. Yesterday, with the team thin at outside linebacker, Spikes moved outside to become a pass rusher (something he also did at Florida, although it was with his hand in the dirt).
While Spikes has the tools to become a special player, this "inside story" doesn't end with Spikes.
Another Patriots linebacker, who has yet to play an NFL down, has also impressed. Second year inside linebacker Tyrone McKenzie has showcased a variety of skills. At South Florida, he was a tackling machine, racking up an astounding 351 tackles in his three seasons with the Bulls. McKenzie is an extremely hard worker, a leader by example, and a football player, pure and simple. The torn ACL that McKenzie suffered in rookie mini-camp in 2009 has yet to slow him down in 2010. Thus far during training camp, he has shown Patriots fans exactly why Bill Belichick used a third round pick on him in the 2009 NFL Draft. McKenzie always seems to be around the ball, and consistently makes bone-rattling tackles near the goal line during the only "live-tackling" drills of training camp.
Along with McKenzie, 3rd year linebacker Gary Guyton figures to be vying for playing time and a starting position as well. We all know what Guyton can do. He is big and fast, but doesn't hold up well against the run. However, as a free-roaming blitzer and in coverage as well as sub-packages, Guyton is an extremely effective player.
The question is, where do all of these pieces fit in? Theoretically, you have Jerod Mayo starting on the weak side, where he will play 90% of the snaps. If things hold up the way they are now, Brandon Spikes would be the starting strong side linebacker. While people (including myself) labeled Spikes as purely a first and second down player, Spikes has impressed in coverage/sub-package situations, and looks more like a three-down player than most initially expected. Still, suppose he sees 50% of the snaps as a rookie. With Brandon Spikes in a Tedy Bruschi-esque role, I think Gary Guyton will revert to the role he had as a rookie on the team in 2008. That season, Guyton played approximately one third of the Patriots snaps. Lets place him at 35% to round off. Then there's Tyrone McKenzie. I expect him to be able to do a little bit of everything. If he's paired with Gary Guyton or Jerod Mayo, he can play strong inside linebacker. If he's paired with Spikes by the goal line (by the way, I love that tandem), he becomes the weak-side linebacker. He can also play in sub-packages and on passing downs on occasion as well. So the final 25% of the snaps go to Tyrone McKenzie.
This group, not by personnel but rather by quantity and quality, reminds me of the inside linebacker group from the 2001 Super Bowl team. That squad had Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, Bryan Cox, and Roman Phifer (although that team ended up playing a lot of four man fronts, allowing three of the linebackers to play at a time, often with a player like Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest putting his hand down as a defensive end). Overall, its obvious that this group has a lot of talent and depth. I would expect the Patriots to be constantly shifting around the personnel at inside linebacker, based on the offense's personnel and the situation in the game. The Patriots should also be able to keep everyone fresh, which will be critical come playoff time.