Quick: can you name the Patriots linebacker depth chart from last off-season?
There was captain Jerod Mayo, returning from an injury, the inconsistent Dont'a Hightower, rising sophomore Jamie Collins, and... and... and...?
30-year-old veteran James Anderson was considered the 4th linebacker on the depth chart, and he lasted on the roster from June 4th through the first roster cuts on August 24th. There was special teamer Chris White, a former practice squad player in Ja'Gared Davis, a Rutgers legacy player in Steve Beauharnais, a player with two ACL injuries in Darius Fleming, and a motley collection of undrafted rookie free agents.
The depth at linebacker was arguably the weakest on the roster, even moreso than the ghastly offensive interior line. When Collins hurt his thigh in Week 1, he missed a game and undrafted rookie Deontae Skinner took his place against the Vikings. And when Dont'a Hightower hurt his knee and missed Weeks 5 and 6, Skinner had to step up, yet again. And when Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending injury in Week 6, and the Jets ran circles around the Patriots in week 7, the fragility of the New England linebackers was in full focus.
Oh, and then Hightower tore his labrum in Week 13, missed Week 14, and played the rest of the season through a serious injury.
The Patriots were fortunate enough they were able to obtain linebackers like Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers to make up for the loss of Mayo, but that's a dangerous game of poor depth with a low likelihood of success. New England finished the season with Collins, a superhuman-effort from Hightower, Ayers, and Casillas as the depth chart.
This year, the depth chart includes the same top three of Mayo, Hightower, and Collins, but the Patriots have also added Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dekoda Watson, and Jonathan Freeny- all four players likely to be in front of Chris White on the defensive depth chart. New England is putting themselves in position to avoid needing a mid-season Hail Mary acquisition to patch up a roster hole.
The best part of last season's usage of Ayers is that he wasn't supposed to be a linebacker at all. He was obtained to help while Chandler Jones was injured because the edge defender position was also a dearth of talent. Behind Jones and Rob Ninkovich, there was Michael Buchanan (placed on the IR for Week 6), and the rookie Zach Moore. That's it. Over the off-season, the Patriots had the likes of Jake Bequette and Will Smith, but neither made it to the final roster. The team had to kick rookie Dominique Easley out to the end because they had no one else.
This year, the Patriots return Ninkovich and Jones, along with the rising sophomore Moore, the newly signed Jabaal Sheard, and the newly drafted Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. This is a six-pack of edge defenders that would all be better depth than the rookie 6th round pick of Zach Moore last season.
New England has focused a lot of its resources on its defensive front. While the players at the top of the roster are similar to 2014, in the case of injury, the Patriots depth is undeniably better than where it was last season.