No matter how many linebackers arrive at Camp Belichick in August, the discussion begins and ends with Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Two of the most intelligent, instinctive, and intimidating tackling machines in the NFL, Hightower and Collins excel in all areas. They are physically explosive players who are superb run defenders, can pressure the quarterback, and are comfortable dropping into coverage.
Both are under contract to the Patriots through this upcoming season — Hightower at $7.5 million after he had his option picked up last season and Collins for $1.2 million in the last year of his rookie deal.
Last season, Hightower missed four games with shoulder and knee injuries, and his absence was felt, particularly against the run. Collins was out for four games with an undisclosed illness and was similarly missed.
Locking both players into long-term deals would have to be considered a high priority for the Patriots. It’s a win-win, as it would mean security for the players while also preventing them from hitting the open market next year.
Additionally, a new deal for Hightower would almost assuredly lighten his cap hit; it’s currently the sixth-highest number on the roster.
The talented twosome got to learn from old sage linebacker Jerod Mayo, who last month announced his retirement after an eight-year career. His decision to hang it up after injuring a pectoral muscle against the Chiefs — the third straight season he ended up on injured reserve — freed up $7 million in cap space.
The Patriots have dipped into the free agent market for reinforcements, signing Shea McClellin and Ramon Humber.
Of the two, McClellin (three years, $8.95 million) projects to have the bigger impact, at least on defense. A former first-rounder, the ex-Bear can play behind the line and also on the line in pass-rushing situations. He’s athletic and a big hitter but never really found his niche in Chicago. His contract suggests the Patriots have big plans and high expectations.
Humber (one year, $885,000) is an exceptional special teams player and will have his biggest impact there.
Jonathan Freeny stepped up last year and had his best season as a pro. He proved he was more than a special teams player and picked up 50 tackles. He earned an extension through the 2016 season, though he did miss time with a hand/wrist injury.
Jonathan Bostic arrived via trade from Chicago, where he put up big tackle numbers (141 in two seasons), though that success didn’t translate in Foxborough.
He played in 11 games with one start and collected just two tackles. Bostic, who is under contract through the upcoming season, could benefit from being in the offseason program and return rejuvenated. There’s no denying his physical skills.
Linebackers Eric Martin and Darius Fleming flip-flopped between the active roster and the 53-man (they even wore the same No. 53 at times) and did most of their damage on special teams. Martin had perhaps the block of the year on Danny Amendola’s big punt return against the Giants.
Martin, who ended the season on injured reserve, is signed through 2016. Fleming was cut, but it wouldn’t be a shocker if he returned. He was a solid contributor and a solid citizen.
Dane Fletcher spent the season on the physically unable to perform list. He was an exceptional special teams player and reserve in his four previous campaigns in New England and in 2014 with Tampa Bay. He is a free agent but reportedly has decided to retire.
Another free agent is Kevin Snyder, a late-season pickup who spent most of his time on the practice squad before being activated for the AFC Championship game in Denver. The Rutgers product is likely to get another low-cost deal.
James Vaughters signed a futures deal. The Stanford product is a bit of an unknown. He signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent and spent the year on the practice squad and practice squad injured list.
Some interesting free agent names that remain on the market include veteran DeMeco Ryans (he’s extremely instinctive) and Bjoern Werner (the former first-rounder was taken 28 spots ahead of Collins and could benefit from a fresh start).
If the Patriots want to restock through the draft, there are plenty of options.
On the inside, choices include Arizona’s Scooby Wright III, Temple’s Tyler Matakevich, and Oklahoma’s Dominique Alexander.
On the outside, Joshua Perry of Ohio State, Oklahoma’s Eric Striker, and Georgia’s Jordan Jenkins are possible fits.
A dark-horse candidate could be Jaylon Smith. Once considered a top-three pick, the former Notre Dame star suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl. His stock didn’t initially drop until reports surfaced at the NFL Scouting Combine that he had suffered nerve damage.
Smith could still go in the first round, but if he continues to slide, there’s a chance he’s there in the second round when New England selects.