FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ depth at linebacker was dealt a significant blow Thursday night when Dane Fletcher was likely lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, according to multiple media reports.
The third-year player got hurt on punt coverage in the first quarter. After lying on the turf for a few moments, he was helped off the field by two members of the training staff and immediately brought to the locker room.
Not only was Fletcher a top special teams player, he was also Brandon Spikes’s top backup at middle linebacker. With him out and Spikes also on the sideline, we could see rookie Dont’a Hightower slide into that spot until Spikes returns, with veteran Bobby Carpenter as the top strongside linebacker.
“He’s played all four downs,” coach Bill Belichick said of Fletcher. “He’s played on first and second down, he’s played third down, he’s played in the kicking game, so he has some versatility. He’s had different roles on different downs and different game plans.”
Belichick would not confirm the extent of Fletcher’s injury, saying he would speak with the medical staff.
Rob Ninkovich, whose locker is next to Fletcher’s, said he didn’t want to jump to conclusions before Fletcher had an MRI, but noted that it will be loss if he’s unable to play this season.
“Dane’s been a great guy; he’s really helped me a lot, and Jerod [Mayo],” Carpenter said. “We’ve got a really tight-knit linebacker room and he’s a tremendous guy and a really good player. Hopefully he’ll be all right.”
An undrafted player out of Montana State, Fletcher played in 23 games over his first two seasons. He missed time last year with a thumb injury that required multiple surgeries.
Officially speakingNot surprisingly, Belichick said little about the replacement officials.
“I think Mike Pereira has made his comments on the officials,’’ he said. “I don’t know who knows more about NFL officials than Mike Pereira, so we’ll leave it to him. I’m just trying to coach our team and get our team better.’’
Pereira, the former vice president of officiating for the NFL, said on Twitter that the lockout and replacement officials is “a mess” and something that needs to get settled.
Branch doesn’t dress
There were 16 Patriots players not in uniform for Thursday night’s exhibition opener against the Saints, though there really weren’t any surprises in the bunch.
Deion Branch, who has been in uniform but hasn’t taken part in team drills during training camp in over a week, didn’t dress for the game. It is unclear why Branch has not been participating.
Also, Spikes, who didn’t practice for the first four days of camp and was off the field for this week’s practices, did not dress.
Also not playing for New England: cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, linebacker Tracy White, offensive linemen Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Dustin Waldron, Matt Kopa, and Markus Zusevics, tight ends Visanthe Shiancoe, Daniel Fells, and Jake Ballard, and defensive linemen Myron Pryor, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, and Jonathan Fanene.
Long road trip
After spending last weekend in Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame game and then flying directly to the Boston area for two days of joint practices with the Patriots before the game Thursday night, Saints players are ready to head home.
“It’s going to be nice, I guess we are done touring on our little excursion,” safety Roman Harper said. “It was fun. Boston was nice and Canton was nice but it is always good to get back to New Orleans.’’
Graham sits out
The Saints held eight players out of the game, including tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham landed on his back making a tremendous touchdown catch during Wednesday’s shells-and-shorts session with the Patriots and was presumably held out for precautionary reasons.
New Orleans also sat running back Mark Ingram, cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson, linebacker David Hawthorne, guard Andrew Tiller, and receivers Adrian Arrington and Nick Toon.
Tribute to Seau
The Patriots had a moment of silence for Junior Seau before the National Anthem; during a video montage of his days with New England, he was called more than a teammate, but also a leader and friend . . . Former UMass and current Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was in owner Robert Kraft’s box during the game, and Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was on hand as well.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.