This is the seventh in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's LB situation.
Overview: The Patriots trotted out three new regular starters in the linebacking corps in 2010, including two rookies, and it was one of the team's most consistent units all season long.
The four 'backers helped the Pats rank 11th in the league in run defense. ILB Jerod Mayo had a sensational season, earning a Pro Bowl nod.
Bill Belichick was able to rotate some players in successfully, as the LB corps proved to be one of the deepest positions on the team. But there is still something missing — an outside ’backer who can get after the quarterback, a consistent edge rusher like Clay Matthews or James Harrison.
Here's a breakdown of each of the linebackers on the roster:
ILB Jerod Mayo: Mayo led the team and the league with 175 tackles, putting together a career year. He was always around the ball, recovering three fumbles and notching five passes defensed. He also had two sacks. The leader of the linebackers, Mayo is turning into a star in the middle of the Patriots' defense as one of their top run stoppers.
ILB Brandon Spikes: The rookie from Florida played in 12 games with eight starts before getting hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on substance abuse. When on the field, Spikes was key in the Patriots' run defense. He finished with 61 tackles and an interception against the Jets. But when he returned to the field in the playoff loss, he made little impact.
LB Gary Guyton: The team's top reserve linebacker, Guyton filled in nicely for Spikes at the end of the season and was a consistent member of the sub package. Guyton returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns and was fifth on the team with 63 tackles. He also had three sacks.
OLB Rob Ninkovich: Cut by the Saints as a long-snapper, Ninkovich had a breakout season. The workhorse was one of the team leaders with nine QB hits and notched four sacks. His big game came in the Monday night win over the Dolphins, where he picked off two passes and recorded a sack. He might be the weakest link of the four starters, but certainly proved his worth in 2010.
OLB Jermaine Cunningham: Cunningham was drafted to be a strong pass rusher off the edge. An end at the University of Florida, Cunningham had a solid rookie season, but didn't exceed any expectations with his production. He finished with one sack and two forced fumbles.
OLB Tully Banta-Cain: Coming off a career year that saw him record 10 sacks in 10 starts in 2009, Banta-Cain's numbers dropped in ’10. Used primarily on third-down and passing situations, Banta-Cain recorded five sacks. He is not strong against the run, limiting his snaps on defense.
LB Dane Fletcher: The undrafted rookie out of Montana State came out of nowhere in the team's win over the Ravens, stepping up late in shutting down Ray Rice. Fletcher is speedy and was used by Belichick in sub packages. He finished the season with two sacks and an interception, adding seven special-teams tackles.
LB Tracy White: The Patriots' special-teams ace, White recorded 12 tackles on special teams. He is set to be a free agent this offseason.
LB Marques Murrell: Cut after the first game of the season, Murrell was re-signed on Jan. 5 but was inactive for the playoffs.
Bottom line: This is certainly a solid group, and it will get a new coach in 2011 — Patrick Graham, a defensive assistant last season. Matt Patricia has moved to coach the safeties.
Like the defensive line and secondary, young linebackers benefited from getting lots of game experience, and there is plenty of depth. However, most of that depth resides in the middle with the inside linebackers, and the Patriots still don't have an outside ’backer who consistently can sack the QB. Cunningham eventually could be that guy, but don't be surprised to see the Patriots draft a pass-rushing OLB.
Mayo and Spikes' spots in the middle are solidified, but Cunningham, Ninkovich and Banta-Cain all might be battling for the two starting outside spots in 2011. Guyton and Fletcher will remain top reserves.