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State of the Patriots | LB

Two stars make up for Patriots’ thinness at linebacker

Patriots linebackers Dont'a Hightower (54) and Jamie Collins (91) must be accounted for on every snap.
Patriots linebackers Dont'a Hightower (54) and Jamie Collins (91) must be accounted for on every snap.File/2014/Barry Chin/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Seventh in a series on the Patriots’ status at each position group heading into training camp.

The Patriots’ linebacker group may seem a bit thin, but quality, not quantity, is the key word here. The versatility of players such as Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, and Patrick Chung (who often play like linebackers) is also a reason this number is low.

Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower represent two of the NFL’s best at the position. Versatile and valuable, they are elite difference-makers who must be accounted for on every snap. Both are three-down backs who can stop the run, drop into coverage, and pressure the quarterback.

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Collins is freakishly athletic and often appears seemingly out of nowhere to make plays. Hightower is extremely intelligent (he makes all the calls) and physical. He specializes in stuffing the run.

The dominant story of the offseason (please, this is a Deflategate-free zone) has been this duo’s contract status. Both are in the final year of their deals and are in line for big — and well-earned — pay raises.

Extensions will undoubtedly be the talk of training camp but it’s likely these two will not be part of the conversation. They’ll stick to football and comment only when and if new deals are struck.

Jonathan Freeny is the top backup. He arrived as a free agent last offseason with a reputation as a solid special teamer, but proved in a short time he could handle a larger role — earning an in-season extension through 2016. He’s a heady player with deceptive quickness and strength.

There will be much competition for what would appear to be just one spot.

Rufus Johnson, who made the team out of camp last season but had his season cut short by an illness, Ramon Humber, Kevin Snyder, and rookies Kamu Grugier-Hill (sixth round), Elandon Roberts (sixth), and C.J. Johnson (undrafted) will be in the mix.

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If Rufus Johnson duplicates his performance from last summer it will be hard to keep him off the roster or stash him on the practice squad. There’s a market for 6-foot-5-inch, 280-pound linebackers with his quickness and relentlessness.

Humber was a special teams ace in New Orleans and Snyder joined the Patriots practice squad late last season. He was activated but did not play in the AFC Championship game.

The rookie draftees were active during the spring OTAs and minicamp practices.

Grugier-Hill made plays on special teams and on defense. He looked comfortable as a gunner and instinctive in recording an interception and at least one pass breakup. His emergence as a special teams presence could spell doom for Humber.

Roberts is another instinctive player who put up gaudy numbers during his three campaigns at Houston, where he collected 175 tackles (23.5 for losses) and seven sacks in 34 games.

Tough to get a read on C.J. Johnson, who missed several practices for an undisclosed reason.

Up next: Secondary.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimcbbride.