The dog days of summer seem to be dragging extra slow of late. I’m not blaming it on the heat or my inability to go on vacation, just the absence of America’s true pastime: football. That being said, we are just one day removed from the official start of New England Patriots training camp! To help those 24 hours pass by a little quicker, here’s the next installment of Cover32 New England’s Training Camp Preview, focusing on the linebackers. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss you’re reading this during a workday)
As I wrote a while back, second-year man Jamie Collins should be a huge contributor to the defense. The 24-year-old Collins is a Swiss-Army Knife at linebacker and can excel in every aspect of the position. He can cover like a defensive back, get in a quarterback’s face like a designated pass-rusher and make tackles in the backfield like a 300-pound, run-stuffing defensive tackle. This is a class of player that Bill Belichick hasn’t had at his disposal since the dynasty days of Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest. It should be interesting to see if Collins can show the ability to build on his breakout success in the playoffs last year by putting in some hard work during training camp.
Though Collins looks to be a safe bet at outside linebacker, two-time Pro-Bowl middle linebacker Jerod Mayo is a question mark coming back from a torn pectoral muscle. Mayo was having another solid season in 2013 until he went down in the Pats’ dramatic October win over the Saints. No one questions Mayo’s work ethic or natural talent, but pectoral injuries are one of the hardest things to recover from. If the former first round pick can regain his 2012 form, Mayo figures to be a veteran leader of a stacked defensive front seven.
Another key player to watch during camp is third-year outside linebacker Don’t’a Hightower. Hightower had a breakout season in 2013, leading the team in tackles with 97. While having one productive season is nice, Hightower was a first round pick in 2012, and more is expected from him. Developing Hightower into a consistent force opposite Collins on the outside would be huge for New England, and would settle the last piece of the puzzle for the Patriot linebackers.
The exciting part about this group of backers is the enormous potential they possess at such a young age (Mayo is the oldest at 28). With two former first-rounders and one of the best all-around athletes on the team, this linebacking corps could push the secondary to be the most talented position group on defense. One thing is certain: opposing offenses will surely be pining for those dog days of summer after facing this group on Sundays.
Follow Eric Pfalzgraf at @Eric_Pfalzgraf
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