NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
Training camp starts on Thursday and we begin to wind down our positional previews by taking a look at the linebackers on the current roster.
The Patriots have assembled a talented and young linebacker unit, mainly using high draft picks on the position. With roster spots limited, the linebackers along with the defensive backs, will be the toughest position to cut down.
Who will make the final 53 and will any surprise cuts occur?
Current Roster (11): Bobby Carpenter (OLB), Jermaine Cunningham (OLB), Dane Fletcher (LB), Dont’a Hightower (LB), Niko Koutivides (LB), Jerod Mayo (ILB), Rob Ninkovich (OLB), Mike Rivera (LB), Brandon Spikes (ILB), Jeff Tarpinian (LB), Tracy White (LB)
What To Watch For: How does Coach Belichick use the trio of Spikes, Mayo and Hightower? Can Brandon Spikes stay on the field and take the next step? Will Jermaine Cunningham become an impact pass rusher? Will Rob Ninkovich play a more pass rush oriented roll? Which linebackers can contribute on Special Teams? Can Bobby Carpenter put it together in the Patriots system?
Bubble Watch: Bobby Carpenter, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Jeff Tarpinian and Tracy White
Who Makes The Final 53: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Dane Fletcher, Bobby Carpenter
Explanation and Breakdown:
Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower form one of the best young linebacker trios in the NFL. That trio along with Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty will be the face of the “new era” of Patriots defense. The defense was much better when Brandon Spikes was healthy and now they add a physical and versatile rookie in Hightower to complement them. This unit should be even better, especially in run defense and blitzing situations.
Rob Ninkovich has developed into a reliable every down player in the Patriots hybrid defense. Down the stretch last season, Ninkovich was one of the best pass rushers on the team and he could be used in that capacity more in 2012. While Ninkovich isn’t Mike Vrabel, he is a similar player and has gotten better each year.
After the top four, no other linebacker is considered a lock to make the roster. I could see Jermaine Cunningham being cut, same with Dane Fletcher and Tracy White.
With that being said, Jermaine Cunningham will likely make the team in what is a make or break year for him. Cunningham needs to prove that he can become a consistent player in pass rush situation. Last year was a wasted year for him but, it’s too soon to give up on him. Cunningham will be one player to watch carefully as camp goes on.
The final linebacker spots will likely come down to who can contribute on special teams. Tracy White has played the “Larry Izzo” role the past two seasons, but really can’t be counted on to play on defense. Dane Fletcher, who can play multiple positions and offers some more youth, could be groomed to play on special teams more often. If the Patriots decide to keep a “special teams” only guy like Tracy White, it could come down to Fletcher who was an UDFA in 2010 or Cunningham a 2nd round pick that same year.
Bobby Carpenter is squarely on the roster bubble and will surely be one of the final players to either make it or be cut. Carpenter hasn’t lived up to his high profilebilling to this point in his career, but Bill Belichick seems to be a fan. He did somewhat revive his career in Detroit last year playing in passing situations and on special teams.
The Patriots linebackers really struggled last seasons to cover tight ends and gave up a ton of yards. It was reported he got major reps during mini-camp and throughout the off-season. It’s for those reasons I see Carpenter making the roster over Tracy White, Niko Koutivides or Jeff Tarpinian, granted they can find a special teams replacement.
Jeff Tarpinian is still practice squad eligible and can step in and play if injuries occur. Also, keep an eye on Mike Rivera who was on the practice squad last season. He is a long shot to make this team, but could be a candidate for the practice squad once again.