Players on the Roster:
Tully Banta-Cain (OLB)
Jermaine Cunningham (OLB)
Dane Fletcher (ILB/OLB)
Gary Guyton (ILB)
Jerod Mayo (ILB)
Eric Moore (OLB)
Marques Murrell (OLB)
Rob Ninkovich (OLB)
Brandon Spikes (ILB)
Tracy White (ILB/ST)
The linebacker unit has a lot of potential and a lot of room for improvement. There are a lot of young players who saw a lot of playing time this past season as only Eric Moore and Tully Banta-Cain are over 27 years of age. That's right, even Rob Ninkovich is only one year older than Gary Guyton. This group is young. They were solid on the interior as Mayo and Guyton/Spikes/Fletcher tackled everything in their direction. However, the outside linebacker spot definitely struggled at fulfilling their duty.
I believe that the Patriots will be happy with Mayo, Spikes, Guyton and Fletcher at ILB going into next season. Tracy White should be resigned for special teams. However, the OLB spot needs a lot of work. Moore and Banta-Cain will both be over 30 at the start of the season, which is beyond their prime, leaving only Ninkovich, Murrell and Cunningham at OLB. Ninkovich is a great sub-linebacker who can drop into coverage, but he's definitely not a starter. Murrell was cut early in the season and resigned towards the end. Cunningham has shown a great ability to stop the run and get to the quarterback, but he's unable to make the final move to bring down the quarterback. The OLB spot could use a definite upgrade.
Here's a quick summary of each player:
Tully Banta-Cain (OLB) - Saw his role decrease from the prior season, may not be worth his contract. One trick pony who tries to run around the opposing tackle to get to the quarterback, but it rarely works against a team not the Bills. He struggles to stop the run and he doesn't drop into coverage.
Jermaine Cunningham (OLB) - Had a solid rookie season as one of the question mark draft picks of the last draft, he was injured for a lot of the season which hampered his production. He can stop the run and he can get at the quarterback, but he wasn't asked to drop into coverage and he didn't have a final step to sack the quarterback. Caused multiple game winning interceptions (Bills, Colts) by creating pressure and forcing bad throws.
Dane Fletcher (ILB/OLB) - Emerged as a quiet contributor. Played ILB in the 4-2-5 sub defense, he was able to stop the run, spy the outlet receiver and, when called upon, reach the quarterback. Great overall player who should see his role expand next season.
Gary Guyton (ILB) - Grew as a pass defender over the course of the season, but still struggled when put in the starting role. He was able to generate pressure from the interior, but isn't a full-time starter. Still had a good season as his role on the defense became more defined.
Jerod Mayo (ILB) - All Pro. League's #1 tackler. He could do more by stopping plays before they happen, but he never let plays happen after he engaged. Must make the next step and become a play stopper, not just a stopper.
Eric Moore (OLB) - Still has some potential as he was playing in the UFL for most of the season, but Moore was the best pass rusher the Patriots' had at the end of the season. Should continue to develop next season.
Marques Murrell (OLB) - Cut early in the season. Signed late. Didn't really play, but he's young and played well in the pre-season.
Rob Ninkovich (OLB) - Great sub-defender, but not really fit to be a full time starter. Struggled to be consistent while stopping the run, struggled to generate consistent pressure, was very solid in pass coverage. He had flashes of brilliance followed by plays that made you wonder why he was on the field. Doesn't have the final burst to reach the quarterback and was often burned by screen passes.
Brandon Spikes (ILB) - Suspended for last four weeks. He needs to have a stern talking to since he was a great run stopping line backer. A Spikes/Guyton combo was fantastic, but Spikes was growing as a pass defender as the season wore on. He was blowing up plays at the line of scrimmage in run defense.
Tracy White (ILB/ST) - Special teams monster, should be back for another season. It seemed like he led the team in special teams tackles every single week.
I wouldn't expect the Patriots to grab an ILB in the off-season, but they should definitely spend an early draft pick on an OLB. They need a "finishing" player who can get to the quarterback and blow up plays in the backfield. Players like Robert Quinn and Aldon Smith are all around players who would fit well, while guys like Ryan Kerrigan would be second tier. Other players like Akeem Ayers and Jeremy Beal struggle with a final step to get to the quarterback, while Justin Houston and Von Miller are just different size variations of Tully Banta-Cain. Since Quinn and Smith will come off the board early, the Patriots might pick another head scratcher in the 2nd- and we just have to assume he'll be a good player.
Best Case 2011 Linebacker Roster:
ROLB: Jermaine Cunningham - Tully Banta-Cain
WILB: Jerod Mayo - Dane Fletcher
SILB: Brandon Spikes - Gary Guyton
LOLB: Draft Pick - Eric Moore - Rob Ninkovich
Practice Squad/Camp Bodies: Marques Murrell