NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The height of NFL free agency passed along with March, April and May, as over 470 incumbent players found themselves franchised-tagged, claimed off waivers, or signed to new teams.
James Anderson was not one of them.
After seven seasons with the Carolina Panthers, the former third-round linebacker joined the Chicago Bears for the 2013 campaign. He started all 16 games there, amassing 102 tackles, a career-high four sacks, a fumble recovery and three pass deflections along the way.
Yet as the offseason rolled around, Chicago’s linebacking corps of Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene proved to be crowded, and Anderson’s one-year, $1.25 million contract proved to be expiring.
The end result for the 30-year-old was free agency.
Anderson departed from Chicago to train in California and try out for teams, waiting for the next call to come. But for the eight-year NFL veteran with 110 games, 69 starts and three 100-tackle seasons under his belt, the phone was rather quiet.
For many veterans not on rosters by organized team activities, the phone stays quiet.
“I think you become anxious,” Anderson told the media on June 13. “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.”
On Wednesday, June 4, Anderson learned he would be playing. The New England Patriots released receiver Mark Harrison to make room for him. Yet as one of 12 linebackers on the current 90-man roster, it’s now up to the 6’2”, 235-pounder to make room for himself.
And as a player carved in a different mold than Patriots starters Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, what makes him different could make him valuable.
But there is a deficit to mitigate.
Over his 1,013 snaps with the Bears last season, Anderson played 471 versus the run and graded out last among 4-3 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus’ signature statistics. With a 70-pound disadvantage against the grain run-blocking offensive lineman, there’s a reason why. Nonetheless, the Virginia Tech product was an integral component to other defensive responsibilities.
That could continue in New England, even if he’s not used to a deduction in reps. Even if he’s the opposite of the 255-pound thumper who donned No. 55 before him.
“I’m a little bit smaller than most of the other guys around here so, to make up for that, I’m going to have to be fast and be able to cover,” Anderson added.
Anderson rushed the passer 93 times in 2013, registering 10 quarterback hurries and three quarterback hits in the process. He dropped into pass coverage for 437 more plays, allowing a respectable PFF tally of 41 catches for 367 yards as well.
As to how that may translate to the Patriots, much of it remains to be seen; Anderson arrived five sessions into OTAs. But at least on the surface, his numbers paint the picture of a fourth linebacker.
One who could even be sent out with the nickel defense to occasionally blitz from the A-gaps.
Anderson wrapped up two quarterbacks from that alignment in defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s scheme in 2013. His ability to time the snap and slice through blitz pickup showed up in the NFL Game Rewind film; and in the games, it layered another variable into the Chicago front seven.
All things considered, though, Anderson’s presence behind the line of scrimmage has been second to his presence beyond it. Oftentimes last season, he sugared the line only to retreat fluidly into coverage – a similar design to what Collins and Hightower did in New England’s 2013 defense.
Perhaps his utilization could free them up on third down in Foxborough.
With experience down the pipe and across from tight ends, Anderson’s quickness and anticipation have turned passes into incompletions in the recent past.
He sits low and sees the field well, synchronizing his eyes with his feet. Those instinctual traits have, in turn, added flexibility to both the base and sub-package defenses he’s been a part of.
They’ve helped him multitask between the levels of the secondary. Along with that, they’ve helped him transition out of coverage to tackle running backs in the flat.
Tight ends, backs, and the field – Anderson occupies his fair share of territory. He plays with little wasted movement; and although he’s a strong-side linebacker in title, his implementation has stretched as far as the weak side against slot receivers.
He’s had some victories in those matchups.
Anderson’s backpedal has kept with inside receivers. And his discipline, as well as his penchant for jumping routes, has contested them.
Now there are times where blocks will overpower him, where tight ends will outreach him, where running backs will undercut him, and where receivers will outrun him. Yet for Anderson, it’s about more than doing what his size and athleticism allow him to do.
It’s about doing what other linebackers do not.
If he can illustrate that during training camp and the preseason, he’ll secure more than a place on the 53-man roster.
Anderson will secure a place in the Patriots defense.