Third in a nine-part series taking a quick look at each position, and how the Patriots may or may not address it during the 2012 NFL Draft:
Position: Inside Linebacker
Need Level: Low
Lingering Questions: Will Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher, and Brandon Spikes remain healthy next year? Will Bobby Carpenter or Jeff Tarpinian be able to step into the role of the 4th ILB? What special teams players make the roster?
State of the Position: The inside linebacker position appears to be one of the strongest and deepest on the Patriots roster, as the team has three top options at the position. Jerod Mayo is an All-Pro linebacker who recently signed a big-time extension with the team. Brandon Spikes missed half the year with a knee injury, but was prolific when he did play and played at an All-Pro caliber level in the playoffs. Dane Fletcher also missed a good portion of the 2011 season with a thumb injury, but showed immense signs of progress from his rookie year. In terms of additional depth, Jeff Tarpinian showed some promise in a brief stint as a starter before missing the rest of the season with an undisclosed illness. Bobby Carpenter, a recent pick-up, is a former first round pick who has been a key reserve for the Lions the last two years. Tracy White and Niko Koutouvides both were forced into playing a lot of snaps at times last year, but are ideally special teams players.
Draft Analysis: The Patriots have a lot of depth at the position, but did have a lot of injuries at the position and they lost Gary Guyton to free agency. The team could seek to add another coverage inside linebacker at some point in the draft. While the position is far from a need, it would not shock me if the Patriots added a player here in the first three or four rounds, especially if the team plans on playing a lot of 4-3 sets (and would be in need for someone who could also play 4-3 outside linebacker). Perhaps UNC's Zach Brown, a speedy OLB/ILB with seven career interceptions could fit that description as a second round pick. I'd also keep my eye on Lavonte David of Nebraska in the second round range if he drops.
Possible Draft Target: Don'ta Hightower, Alabama
I love the versatility, character, smarts, and instincts that Dont'a Hightower brings to the table. Sort of like Brandon Spikes, Hightower just makes plays and has shown some pass rush potential and could possibly be converted to 3-4 outside linebacker. I really doubt Hightower is around at 27, but if he is, it wouldn't be a complete shock to me if the Patriots took a chance on him as the BPA.
Possible Sleeper Target: Noah Keller, Ohio
Patriots worked him out privately. He's an instinctive, productive player who tested well at his Pro Day and could be worth a shot in the seventh round.