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Patriots Linebackers are the Heart of the Defense

Lost in the fanfare of the off-season is how well the Patriots are set up at the linebacker position and how strong of a unit they will be moving forward.

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Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner have stolen the headlines. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are coming back and solidifying the defensive line. Even Pat Chung made the news.

And then we've talked extensively about the need for a third defensive end and how there's possible room for improvement next to Devin McCourty at the complementary safety position.

Lost is the heart of the Patriots defense and possibly the strongest unit in the conference, this side of Kansas City.

Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, and oh Captain, my Captain, Jerod Mayo.

A quick glance and comparison between 2013 and 2014 of the linebackers on the roster should give reason for concern. Gone are the veterans Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher. Back is Mayo from his stint on the injured reserve. Returning are sophomore Collins and junior Hightower.

There's plenty of youth, but how does this position present more confidence than, say, the safety position? Or defensive end? Or running back?

Well, Mr. Strawman, I'm glad you asked.

Mayo is coming back from a season-ending pectoral injury, which immediately should make everyone feel better than most other injuries (over 80% of patients show a return to full strength after 12 weeks). He returns and immediately makes the team better with his skill set and his leadership as a field general. He can either assuming his old role at weakside linebacker (Will), or move back into the middle into Brandon Spikes' vacated role (Mike), or he could venture to strong side (Sam) and allow him to be a downhill player.

Yes, he can play all three positions as needed and that comes with the versatility of the other linebackers.

There's Hightower who can finally move into a role that better suits his skill set. Early in the season, once Mayo was out with injury, Hightower was forced out of position and his performance suffered. He has talent to cover, but he was a liability the further his coverage moved down the field. He's better when he's allowed to stay in the flat or attack the gaps.

Like Mayo, Hightower can take Spikes' old role in the middle as the downhill defender against the run. Weighing the strengths of the other linebackers, that might be the best role for him, and he adds value to drop back into the shallow zones. Basically, where Spikes excels above Hightower against the run, Dont'a more than makes up for it with his coverage ability.

That said, many think that Hightower should stay at strong side linebacker, with Pro Football Focus going as far as labeling him as the prototype for the position for the whole league. So if Hightower stays at the Sam, that can place Mayo back at his Mike position that he started his career- which I don't think anyone would argue against. Hightower can hold the edge and cover in the flat, while Mayo can clean up the middle and drop into zone.

And that leaves sophomore Jamie Collins, a rookie who showed some of the biggest strides of improvement over the course of the season. He can do it all, but he specializes in rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage, which makes him the ideal Will backer. He's dangerous and he can become a playmaker if he continues on his electrifying trajectory.

As the Will, Collins won't be facing extra blockers from the tight ends and he'll be able use his superhuman athleticism to make plays in the backfield against both the pass and the run. He'll  be able to drop into coverage and stick with the tight ends. He lacks the bulk or the natural ability against the run like Mayo and Hightower, but that's okay. His skill set is an ideal complement.

Now there's a clear concern about depth. Josh Hull has been signed to be the special teams ace that Dane Fletcher provided, although I feel like role will be more of a Tracy White. There's isn't a true 4th linebacker on the roster that we can feel comfortable about starting in a pinch. Just like the running back position, I don't think any of us will be surprised by a day three draft pick to provide the necessary depth.

But on the front lines, few have it better than the Patriots. While other positions might be receiving more fanfare, the heart of the defense is beating stronger than ever.