The Patriots may not have put up the most brilliant defensive statistics last seasons, but no one can deny that the Patriots have a bright future. The key to the Patriots 3-4 defense is in the linebackers and coach Bill Belichick needs the perfect pieces. He has key pieces in the middle of the field with Junior Jerod Mayo leading the league in tackles and Freshman Brandon Spikes bringing the strength up the middle. Their styles of play complement each other and the addition of Gary Guyton's speed and Dane Fletcher's versatility give the Patriots a quartet of youthful gamers in the middle of the field. Other than maybe the cornerback position, the inside linebacker corps have the brightest future on this defense.
However the outside linebacker position does not instill the same confidence that comes with the inside linebackers. Rookie Jermaine Cunningham showed a lot of promise on the outside but he still needs to gain a final step to become a more dangerous pass rusher. Rob Ninkovich is a solid cover linebacker, but he's not an elite pass rusher or run stopper. FA pick up Eric Moore was a dangerous rusher and was solid against the run, but he's on the wrong side of 30 and was more of an elephant rusher and was almost never asked to drop into coverage. Tully Banta-Cain is also beyond 30 and is visibly declining.
Pro Football Focus may not be a favorite website of Patriots' fans due to their take on certain players, but if you're willing to go beyond their scores, their statistics are excellent. They just posted an article to examine the tackling success of linebackers and the results yielded a mixed bag.
On the positive side, they have Brandon Spikes as the only qualifying inside linebacker (25+ attempts) to not miss a tackle, which a bright sign for this young player's future- and also a sign of how important he is to stopping the run of opposing teams. League leader Jerod Mayo finished fourth with 3 missed tackles over the course of the season, which tallies out to 48.33 attempts/miss, which is fantastic when seeing how many tackles he made. That's a bad attempt every 5+ games, which is great. The Mayo/Spikes tandem give the Patriots the most reliable linebacker pairs in the league and they're only going to improve. As I've said before- the interior of the linebacker core is set for a long time.
On the negative side, two Patriots OLBs make the bottom 10 list for missed tackle rate and they shouldn't really be too much of a surprise. They have Tully Banta-Cain as 9th worst out of qualifying players with a missed tackle every 9.80 attempts, or 5 total misses. That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise as TBC's role only increased at the end of the season due to injuries. The other culprit in the bottom 10 is Rob Ninkovich at 6th worst, with 6 missed tackles, for a 8.67 rate.
(Note: Ninkovich was used utilized in coverage so I'll be asking PFF for clarification on where his missed tackles took place. If they took place in run defense, then his missed tackles are a serious issue if he is to be a cornerstone of the defense. However, if they're a result of slowing down running backs like Ray Rice on screen plays, I'll be more willing to cut him some slack. I'll keep you updated.)
So for those people who wanted an outside linebacker (Hi Tim!) maybe your wishes could have been better supported with a need for more consistency at the outside spot, and not just the desire for an improved pass rush.
The Patriots seem to be fine on the inside. Hopefully the players on the outside will become stronger and more sure tacklers over the summer and elevate the 3-4 linebackers to the heights required to make this defense elite.