State of the Position is a new weekly Foxboro Blog feature that will examine the post-draft status of each position and take a look at what needs still need to be filled before the season opens up.
Today we will examine the linebackers.
It seems like the same old story: Who will put pressure on the passer?
Ever since the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the Patriots’ linebackers have taken a significant step back in both talent and production.
Bill Belichick broke his trend of passing on linebackers in round one by selecting Jerod Mayo in 2008.
All he’s done since then is earn Rookie of the Year honors and All-Pro status last season.
In 2010 he took two Florida linebackers: Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes. Both players contributed early on, with Spikes stepping in as an effective run stuffer.
Cunningham put pressure on the quarterback, but clearly has to finish better.
However, both players look like they will fill two starting spots in this linebacker corps for years to come.
Beyond Cunningham and Spikes, a 2010 undrafted free agent proved to be better than his draft status would indicate.
Former Montana State defensive end Dane Fletcher showed playmaking ability as a subpackage linebacker, recording 23 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in limited duty.
With Mayo, Spikes, Fletcher and Gary Guyton filling out the depth chart, the inside linebacker spot is a strong point for this young defense.
All four players are still maturing and can contribute in specific roles as Guyton and Fletcher are better suited for passing downs while Spikes is a two-down beast.
However, the real problem still remains at outside linebacker.
Last year, Tully Banta-Cain entered the season as one starter after posting double-digit sacks in 2009. Apparently someone forgot to remind him that over half of those came against the Buffalo Bills’ pathetic offensive line.
By season’s end, Banta-Cain was no longer starting as journeyman Rob Ninkovich earned more playing time.
Like Fletcher, Ninkovich is a hard worker who made some big plays, highlighted by his two-interception effort against the Dolphins.
While he may not have great upside, I think Ninkovich definitely has the ability to be an effective player in a rotation.
Beyond Ninkovich and Cunningham, the other options are underwhelming at best.
Eric Moore made an impact in limited duty after being signed as a free agent, but there are questions about his ability to hold up over a 16-game season.
Sixth-round pick Markell Carter has some physical ability, but he will quickly realize the jump in competition from Arkansas State and the NFL is drastic.
Overall, without a proven pass rusher, this group is below average.
State of the Position Grade: Inside Linebacker: B+ Outside Linebacker: C-