Earlier today, we took a look at Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, and how he has been consistently overlooked by fans. Ninkovich's linebacker counterpart, Dane Fletcher, could also fall into that category.
This offseason, the Patriots have made a lot of additions to the front seven of the defense. The team drafted linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive ends Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette early in the draft. They also picked up free agent defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and linebacker Bobby Carpenter.
For all the hype that the three rookies have received, it was actually Bobby Carpenter who was running with the starters in training camp. And through all of this, Dane Fletcher, who enters his third year with the Patriots after going undrafted out of Montana State, has become somewhat of a forgotten man in New England.
After successfully making the transition from defensive end to inside linebacker in his first year with the team, Fletcher had a lot of expectations heading into year two. After a stellar preseason, many thought that he could take over a starting spot in the linebacking corps. Unfortunately, Fletcher's progress in 2011 was slowed by a thumb injury that kept him out of six games, and limited him in many others. On the year, Fletcher recorded 32 tackles in 10 games, five of which were starts.
A look at the potential roles Fletcher could play for the defense after the jump!
While I don't necessarily believe that Fletcher is going to be a starter for the Patriots next season, I do think he is going to play a key role for the defense as a jack-of-all-trades linebacker, similar to Rob Ninkovich. That being said, I wanted to do a quick run-down of all the potential roles that Fletcher could play for the defense in 2012:
- 3-4 Inside Linebacker: This was his best position in 2010. He would seemingly be the #4 option here in 2012, after Mayo, Spikes, and Hightower.
- 3-4 Outside Linebacker: Fletcher was a pass rush specialist at Montana State, and has seen some limited playing time here as a speed rusher his first two years as a pro.
- 4-3 Middle Linebacker: Played exceptionally in this role when Brandon Spikes was out during the 2011 preseason.
- 4-3 Outside Linebacker: Has the versatility to play either the SAM or WILL linebacker spot in the 4-3.
- 3-3 Spy Linebacker: Has excellent man coverage skills for a linebacker; was used in this spot against the Ravens in 2010 to shut down Ray Rice
- Sub-package defensive end: Very fast athlete who excelled at this position in college and can get to the quarterback.
- Sub-package defensive tackle: A wrinkle using Fletcher's athleticism, he played this spot several times in 2011. Can rush the passer or even drop into coverage from this spot.
It's easy to see how a player with Fletcher's versatility would be coveted by Bill Belichick. As I said earlier, I wouldn't expect Fletcher to be a starter in 2012. However, I think he will be a key back-up at a lot of spots who could see some time in different sub-packages as well. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Fletcher was able to find his way on the field for 10-30 snaps a game in 2012 (the number could vary greatly with a player such as Fletcher, depending on the opponent's style of play and individual match-ups).