Any way you approach it, linebacker was one of, if not the, thinnest position on the Patriots in 2010.
Whether it was injuries, surprise cuts, suspensions, or just sheer lack of numbers on the roster, there weren't a lot of bodies able to fill the spots in this area the past season. There weren't even any practice squad linebackers to help out during the week.
There were some bright spots, however. The ascension of Jerod Mayo, for instance, and the flashes of productivity from rookies Brandon Spikesand Jermaine Cunningham, for another. Veteran Gary Guytonalso proved to be a dependable playmaker when called upon.
Nevertheless, this is most certainly a position the Patriots will target in the NFL Draft in April and/or via free agency.
THE LINEBACKER ROSTER
(Players listed alphabetically, as of February 2011, with individual analysis below)
95 – Tully Banta-Cain – OLB
His sack total was cut exactly in half from the previous season (from 10 down to five) as Banta-Cain took on more of a reserve role in New England's defense. He's on the payroll throughout the 2012 season, however, and will likely be back, even if it's still as a backup/situational player.
96 – Jermaine Cunningham – OLBInjuries limited this rookie's availability early, but once he got on the field, he proved he belonged, starting 11 of 15 games. His biggest play may have been his pressure of Peyton Manning that led to the game-sealing interception by James Sanders against Indy in November. It'll be interesting to see how much Cunningham can benefit from the so-called "year-two jump" in '11.
52 – Dane Fletcher – ILBThe undrafted rookie from Montana State earned early training camp kudos from Bill Belichick, then beat the odds by making the 53-man roster. Inactive for the first three regular season games, he played significant minutes in the remaining 13, particularly down the stretch. His future looks bright on this team, with a contract lasting through '12.
59 – Gary Guyton – ILB/OLB
Big plays became his calling card this past year, from a pick-six in the opener versus Cincinnati, to a fumble recovery for a TD in snowy Chicago. Guyton also proved reliable as a fill-in starter when rookie Brandon Spikes was suspended in the final quarter of the season. The 2011 season, his fourth in the NFL, will be a contract year for the veteran.
51 – Jerod Mayo – ILBNot only made the Pro Bowl, but was also named an All-Pro after leading the NFL in tackles with 175. Still isn't making big plays as frequently as he's often said he'd like, though he's heading in the right direction.
53 – Marques Murrell – OLB
A late-season addition who actually appeared in the season opener. Signed through the '11 season, but is far from a lock to remain with the team.
50 – Rob Ninkovich – OLB
Vrabel 2.0 started 10 of 16 games, his best effort having come Week 4 at Miami. The hard-working veteran enters the final year of his contract and will likely stick around, even on a reserve basis.
55 – Brandon Spikes – ILB
Came up with a touchdown-saving INT against the Jets in early December before serving a four-game suspension. That absence seemed to put the brakes on a good momentum effort the rookie displayed throughout much of the year. Regardless, he's almost certainly be lining up next to Mayo on the inside come the fall.
58 – Tracy White – ILB
Like former Patriots special teams captain Larry Izzo, White is an inside linebacker in name only. He's predominantly a valuable contributor in that third facet of the game. He'll be a free agent this offseason, but could be brought back based on his solid play on special teams.
Up next in the Position Snapshot series: wide receiver, coming Thursday, Feb 3.