Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): Jerod Mayo (29), Dont'a Hightower (25), Jamie Collins (25), Darius Fleming (26), Cameron Gordon (24), Eric Martin (24), Deontae Skinner (24)
Unrestricted Free Agent: Jonathan Casillas (28), Chris White (26)
Restricted Free Agent: James Morris (23)
2014 Review: Jerod Mayo was injured and out for the season in Week 6 and the Patriots still featured the best linebacker corps in the entire league. Hightower jumped into a new stratosphere as a defender and leader, while Collins continued to develop and flash his versatility.
Everyone else? Who?
The Patriots featured some players in bit roles over the season (Casillas stepped on when Hightower was injured, while Skinner played early when Collins was injured), but this season at linebacker belonged to Hightower and Collins. They were dominant and they were the heart of this defense.
They rushed the quarterback with tremendous success. They were fantastic dropping into coverage. They were stout against the run (Collins continued to improve after a disaster in the first game after Mayo was injured). They were amazing.
White and Casillas played well on special teams, along with Fleming (when his number was called). The unit featured flash snaps by defensive linemen Akeem Ayers and Rob Ninkovich.
Possibly the most striking development for this group was their consistent A-gap blitz usage over the course of the season. It seemed as if this was a new wrinkle for the year, as every single linebacker who suited up was thrown through the middle of the formation at least a couple of times.
The loss of Mayo for the second straight season resulted in the breakthrough years of his teammates. Mayo even helped out in a coaching capacity throughout the season. The linebackers were possibly the best and most consistent unit on the Patriots roster, apart from possibly the secondary.
2015 Projection: With Hightower and Collins returning, the Patriots are set at the position. Mayo's contract will likely be the first move by the front office to free up cap space; he will likely receive a Vince Wilfork offer, with an incentive-laden deal. Wilfork earned all of his contract escalators- it wouldn't be farfetched for Mayo to do the same.
So long as the Patriots have these three players, they will be more than set at the linebacker role from 2015. They will be outright dominant.
The position breakdown is pretty clear cut. The starting positions are set, but the depth is a question. White will likely return on a minimum deal to continue his role on special teams. Casillas could, too, but don't expect the Patriots to outbid a competing offer.
The Patriots were comfortable with the depth on the roster at the position for 2014, so as long as Fleming and Skinner are under contract, it doesn't seem like the Patriots will drive too hard at addressing the unit.