The New England Patriots are one year removed from having both of their star linebackers receive All Pro votes, and athletic freak Jamie Collins was named 2nd Team All Pro in 2015. This team has a ton of talent.
Collins and Dont'a Hightower are two of the best linebackers in the league and whatever Collins provides in glitz and glam and athleticism, Hightower brings in physicality between the tackles. Collins collected 5.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 6 passes defended, and a defensive touchdown on the year, while Hightower collected 3.5 sacks of his own as the most efficient blitzing linebacker in the league.
Both were only able to suit up for 12 games this year and their injuries probably attributed more to the team's downfall than many would like to admit. The Patriots saw homefield advantage slip away once Hightower went down in the first half of the regular season game against the Broncos, and Collins was already sidelined with an illness. Once Hightower vanished, the Broncos started to run the ball and were able to come back to win the game.
Behind Hightower and Collins were Jonathan Freeny and Jerod Mayo. The coaches really wanted Freeny to be the third linebacker all season, but it was extremely evident that Mayo was the superior talent. Talent prevailed by the end of the year, but an injury to Mayo forced him to the reserves and Freeny went back to the 3rd linebacker in the depth chart.
Players like Darius Fleming and Jonathan Bostic added valuable depth and special teams ability over the course of the season.
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It's clear that the linebackers are set to change in 2017, although extensions could be on the horizon. Both Collins and Hightower will be priorities for the Patriots to retain for the long term, while Freeny received an extension in the middle of the season to provide value as a special teams linebacker with back-up defensive quality.
The Patriots are unlikely to pick up Mayo's option, which would make him a free agent this offseason. That's not to say Mayo's time in New England is done, but that his cap hit would be far too astronomical for his value on the field, and that he could return over the summer on a cheaper deal. The coaches love his leadership and "Assistant Linebackers Coach Jerod Mayo" will definitely become a thing down the road.
The team acquired Bostic from the Bears with 2016 in mind and he will be fighting for a roster spot with Fleming to provide back-up services.
Hightower, Collins, and Freeny are locks for 2016, and the Patriots will likely carry two more players at the position. The team won't be looking for veteran leadership at the position in free agency and will be far more likely to add a player late in the draft to compete for one of the back-end positions and to play on special teams.