Happy Training Camp, everyone! Throughout camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. Today, we'll take a look at the linebacker position.
During the deemed "Dynasty Years" that lasted from 2001-2007, the New England Patriots featured one of the best group of linebackers in the NFL. Names like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Johnson, Larry Izzo, Roman Phifer and Willie McGinest became household names as Patriots linebackers. Oh, how times have changed.
With all of these guys now retired from football, the Patriots have been forced to rebuild their entire linebacking corps. For starters, they drafted Jerod Mayo in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. After having bad luck with a few guys, the Patriots selection of Mayo paid off--as he is now among the best at his position.
With Mayo in place, the Patriots began to build around him. In 2010, the Patriots brought in Brandon Spikes (second-round choice), Rob Ninkovich (Saints cast-off) and Dane Fletcher (UDFA) onto their roster. All have played big roles in the linebacking unit for the Patriots. But it seemed that one more piece was missing from the puzzle.
Belichick seemed to agree with me, as he traded up in the 2012 Draft to take promising Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. With 2011 starter Rob Ninkovich being used as a defensive end thus far in camp, Hightower could join Mayo and Spikes as the Patriots' starting three linebackers. But that's just my thoughts.
Along with the aforementioned group, veterans Tracy White, Bobby Carpenter, Jeff Tarpinian, Aaron Lavarias, Mike Rivera, Niko Koutouvides are also in the conversation for a roster spot at linebacker. Let's take a look at where each of these guys stand for a spot on the 53-man roster:
Roster Locks: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Dane Fletcher
I've got what I believe to be the core-three as roster locks. With Mayo being the oldest of the group at age 26, this group can potentially become one of the best young corps in the game today.
Mayo's already established Pro Bowl status, and a healthy Spikes has that potential. Within a few years, Hightower could be in that position too. If each of these players continue to gel and develop together, we could see a new generation at linebacker.
I've got Fletcher on this list as well, because he's been a solid player in sub packages. His versatility at linebacker, special teams play, and familiarity of the system should land him a roster spot easily.
Note: Rob Ninkovich was on my Defensive End preview as a LOCK. Not sure where he'll play.
On The Bubble: Bobby Carpenter, Jeff Tarpinian, Tracy White
I fought putting Carpenter as a lock, because of all of the buzz he's generating out of camp thus far. After having failed stints in Detroit and Dallas, Carpenter has worked very hard and has received reps with the first team throughout camp. I have him as a bubble player only because I'm not sure what the Patriots are going to do with Ninkovich. If Ninko stays at DE, Carpenter's a lock. If not, he's still got a very very good chance of making it.
Tarpinian is also a guy that the Patriots like. He too has put in extra work this offseason, and has received praise for his development as special teams. I have Carpenter with a higher probability of making it, but I could see Tarpinian sneaking in their as maybe the fifty-third guy on the roster.
I'm not so high on the veteran White though. Even though he's been one of their best special team guys and a solid sub package OLB, he's facing some stiff competition. Him and Carpenter are extremely similar players. If I had to choose right now, I'd have White as one of my last guys off the roster.
Long Way To Go: Niko Koutouvides, Mike Rivera, Aaron Lavarias
Even though he's been in the league for a while, I just see Niko as a one dimensional special teams player. While Belichick preaches special teams more than any other coach, he's not a particularly good linebacker. With other guys like Carpenter and White vying for spots, I don't see much of a chance for Mr. Koutouvides.
Rivera and Lavarias to me have little to no shot at making the roster. Both have little to no NFL experience, and seem to be fighting an uphill battle. Look for both, more likely Lavarias, to have a practice squad chance.