FOXBOROUGH – Often when the Patriots sign a player in June, it’s a journeyman or undrafted rookie, the type of players who aren’t expected to last past training camp.
But the signing of linebacker James Anderson became the rare June signee who could not only stick around, but be a key player for the defense, particularly in nickel packages.
Anderson, a 30-year-old former third-round pick of the Panthers, was the Bears’ leading tackler last season, starting all 16 games, thanks in large part to injuries in Chicago’s linebacking corps.
Though he isn’t as hard-nosed a player as the Bears would like at strongside ’backer and has his difficulties against the run, which is why he wasn’t brought back for a second season in the Windy City, Anderson is a solid coverage player, something the Patriots have needed at the position for a few years.
Anderson is wearing No. 55, the number Brandon Spikes wore during his four seasons in New England. In essence, Anderson is the opposite of Spikes as a player: Spikes is very good against the run, but a liability in coverage.
Anderson has turned his relative lack of size — he’s listed at 6 feet 2 inches, 235 pounds — into an asset.
“Looking at my size, I’m a little bit smaller than most of the other guys around here. So to make up for that, I have to be fast and be able to cover, so I take that as a strength, and I work on it,” Anderson said.
Asked if being a cover linebacker is a dying art, Anderson disagreed.
“I think the offensive game is transitioning,” he said. “You’ve got tight ends now who are receivers, you’ve got running backs who are tight ends, so the game is a little different. I guess you’ve got to kind of mold your defense to what they’re doing now.”
Anderson recorded 102 tackles (85 solo) with four sacks, four pass break-ups and a fumble recover last year with the Bears, the third time in his career he topped 100 tackles; he was credited with 130 for the Panthers in 2010, and followed that with 145 total tackles a season later.
It’s easy to wonder why he lingered on the open market for so long, but as the one who had to wait to be offered a job, Anderson had a different feeling.
“I don’t think ‘wonder’ is the right word. I think you become anxious, because you see free agency happen, you see guys getting signed,’’ he said. “I’m used to working out, used to being with a team, but I knew sooner or later, either I was going to be playing or I wasn’t.”
Anderson was working out in Los Angeles when he got the call from the Patriots to come in for a tryout, which happened May 25. He was signed June 4, and believes he’s picking up the defense quickly, crediting the coaches with doing a great job of breaking down the information for him.
“[My head is] not necessarily spinning, but I feel like a rookie almost, because it’s a totally different defense than I’ve ever played, so just learning the techniques and how they want things done, I’ve got to spend a little more time in the playbook,” he said.
Anderson is also getting help from his new teammates, particularly the other linebackers.
“It’s been great; those guys are awesome,” he said. “I think the hardest thing is coming in as one of the older guys in the room, and having to go and prove yourself to the guys that are here because being on a new team, you have to earn their respect. So I’m just trying to go out every day and work and try to do that.”
Like all Patriots players, Anderson said he’ll fit in wherever the coaches tell him to play, and when he’s told where to go, he’ll do it “with everything I have.”
Anderson has earned a reputation as a good guy in the locker room, willing to help and offer advice to younger players. He may not be doing that just yet while he gets his bearings in New England, but it sounds like he’ll embrace the chance if it comes.
“That comes from just growing up, always being told that when you get an opportunity, to always give back to somebody else,” he said. “And the bottom line is, the better the worst guy is on the team, the better the team is, so it’s my job to kinda help guys along. The better they are, the more they’re going to push me.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.