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Position Analysis: Linebacker

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Linebacker (9)
Jerod Mayo (7th year)
Dont'a Hightower (3rd year)
Jamie Collins (2nd year)
Brandon Spikes (5th year)
Dane Fletcher (5th year)
Chris White (4th year)
Steve Beauharnais (2nd year)
Ja'Gared Davis (1st year)
Taylor Reed (1st year)

It's funny how injuries can sometimes result in positive developments. When Jerod Mayo went down with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 6, the Patriots lost their best all-around linebacker. Even though Mayo's absence was felt, it allowed opportunities for other players and eventually those turned out to be positives for the defense.

First, Dont'a Hightower was asked to do more in just his second season, and while the 2012 first-round pick initially struggled with the added responsibilities, by season's end he was playing strong football while emerging as a leader on the depleted defense.

Later in the season rookie Jamie Collins got his chance to shine and he showcased his freakish athleticism down the stretch. In the playoffs he was the team's best defender, and he projects for bigger and better things in 2014.

With Mayo back in the picture, Hightower and Collins should join him to create a formidable group of linebackers for Bill Belichick to work with this season. Hightower led the team with 137 tackles and played in all 16 games. Collins emerged late, culminating with a dominant effort against Indy in the playoffs in which he had six tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits and an interception.

Those two should only get better with experience and Mayo's return will offer a huge boost in the Patriots 4-3 look. Hightower projects to replace pending free agent Brandon Spikes in the middle, and he offers more athleticism and versatility at the spot. Spikes played all 16 games but a nagging knee injury landed him on IR for the playoffs, and now it appears his days in New England are all but over.

Behind the starters the Patriots could use some depth. Dane Fletcher, who's also a pending free agent, is more suited for special teams. The same could be said of Chris White, who made just one tackle on defense all season. Steve Beauharnais, a seventh-round pick in 2013, appeared in just two games as a rookie and would need to show tremendous improvement to fight his way into the rotation.

Ja'Gared Davis spent most of the season on the practice squad but did suit up for both playoff games as a special teamer. Taylor Reed was signed to the practice squad in late December and was re-signed after the season.

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