The Patriots made several signings last week at defensive back and wide receiver to signify major changes to those positions.
A couple of defections from the linebacker spot indicate big changes are coming to that position, as well.
The Patriots lost reserve linebacker and special teams ace Dane Fletcher Sunday, as he signed a one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was the second linebacker to leave New England over the weekend, with former middle linebacker Brandon Spikes agreeing to a one-year, $3.25 million deal with rival Buffalo.
The Patriots didn’t make too much of an effort to re-sign either player, and don’t seem too upset to see them leave. The Patriots’ defense has been big and physical the last four years, with Vince Wilfork and Spikes manning the middle. While they finished in the top half of the league in points allowed over the past four seasons, they also have finished 25th or worse in total defense four seasons in a row. They struggled defending the pass, had trouble making any key stops against the Ravens and Broncos in the last two AFC Championship games, and couldn’t stop the Giants late in the fourth quarter to preserve a lead in the Super Bowl.
By shedding Spikes, Fletcher, and potentially Wilfork — he has asked the Patriots to release him instead of agreeing to a restructured contract, according to NFL Network — the Patriots may be transitioning to a quicker, more athletic defense. Jerod Mayo and Donta Hightower will return as starting linebackers next year, and rookie Jamie Collins, a former safety who excels in pass coverage, should expect to see a much bigger role in 2014.
The Patriots also have a trio of unheralded young linebackers — Chris White, Ja’Gared Davis, and Steve Beauharnais — but likely will target the position in this May’s draft.
Fletcher, an undrafted free agent out of Montana State in 2010, made a decent enough impact as a fill-in linebacker and special teams contributor, but he never developed into starting material. He had four sacks in four seasons — though he missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL — with an interception, three forced fumbles, and six starts in 38 games. He helped fill in once Mayo suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 6, and played 18 percent of defensive snaps last season.
Fletcher, 27, visited the Buccaneers last week, and was set to visit the Raiders Monday. But the Buccaneers intercepted Fletcher at the Salt Lake City airport Sunday, coming to terms on a deal before he could make his connecting flight to Oakland, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Spikes’s departure wasn’t too surprising, either. A second-round pick in 2010, Spikes was solid in run defense and compiled a ton of tackles — 286 in four seasons, including 178 the last two years — but he never developed into a true playmaker. Listed at 255 pounds but often playing at a heavier weight, Spikes was a liability in pass coverage and often was taken off the field in obvious passing situations. In four seasons with the Patriots he had just one sack and two interceptions.
But Spikes, 26, never quite meshed with coach Bill Belichick off the field, either. He was the only player to skip voluntary offseason workouts last season, preferring instead to train on his own in Florida. He got in hot water in 2012 for posting a homophobic message on his Twitter account, and lost a marketing deal with Reebok before his rookie season after appearing in a sex tape on the Internet.
The final straw for Spikes came in January, when a snowstorm caused him to arrive late to Gillette Stadium on the Friday before wild-card weekend, when the Patriots had a bye. Spikes played the entire 2013 season with a knee injury, but the Patriots placed Spikes on injured reserve the Monday after the snowstorm, five days before they were set to face the Colts in the playoffs. While no reason was given for the decision to end Spikes’s season, it appeared the Patriots had had enough of Spikes and decided to move on without him.
Spikes, after signing with Buffalo, posted a message on his Twitter account Saturday that seemed to be aimed directly at the Patriots and their reputation for stifling players’ personalities.
“Free at last, free at last. I thank God I’m free at last. Free at last, Free at last !!!!!!” he wrote.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin