The New England Patriots face an off-season with a need to find depth at inside linebacker after the departure of Brandon Spikes in free agency. One avenue to explore is the NFL Draft to find another player to handle the inside (or Mike) linebacker position in the base 4-3 defense going forward. That leads to the question: who was the best New England Patriots draft pick ever at inside linebacker?
Spikes was a second round draft pick in 2010 who initially seemed destined to join 2008 first round draft pick Jerod Mayo as a dynamic run-stuffing duo at inside linebacker in the base 3-4 defense the Patriots defense was still playing. Mayo quickly established himself as a leader of the Patriots defense early in his career. Mayo was responsible for the defensive calls and positioning and aligning the defense.
By the end of 2011 the Patriots had moved to the base 4-3 defense they currently use the majority of the time in the non-sub packages. In that package the Patriots kept Spikes inside to take advantage of his run-stopping abilities. Mayo moved to the weakside linebacker position where he continued to excel as one of the better three-down linebackers strong in run defense as well pass defense covering tight ends and making strong reads while playing in zone defense.
One of the best inside linebackers was 1962 thirteenth round draft pick Nick Buoniconti. A defensive tackle at Notre Dame, Buoniconti was converted to inside linebacker and was an instant hit. For seven seasons he was the rock in the middle of the 1960s AFL Boston Patriots earning first or second team All-AFL each season. In 1969 the Miami Dolphins swiped him from the Patriots and there he cemented his legacy as team MVP three times in Miami and twice going to the Pro Bowl. He led Miami’s “No-Name Defense” to three Super Bowl performances including the legendary 1972 undefeated team. In 2001 Buoniconti was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Patriots inside linebacker who set the tone for the position was 1974 second round draft pick Steve Nelson. “Nelly” spent 14 years in New England and number 57 was a three time Pro Bowl selection. He led the Patriots in tackles eight times and topped 100 tackles in a season nine times. Still active within the community, Nelson coached for seven years at Curry College and remains tied to the Patriots with a successful media career and is a regular on radio and television.
In 1988 the Patriots drafted inside linebacker Vincent Brown in the second round. The Mississippi Valley State alumni spent eight seasons in New England. By his second season he was a regular starter at inside linebacker and began earning a reputation as a hard-hitter who forced fumbles. Nicknamed “the Undertaker,” Brown starred on a number of bad teams in New England. Unfortunately, his hard-hitting style and wear-and-tear at inside linebacker caught up to him before the team’s Super Bowl appearance and he retired before the 1996 season. Continued here…