FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Linebacker is one of the more competitive positions in New England’s training camp this summer, and it makes sense. After all, the Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in team defense last season, ahead of only the Green Bay Packers.
Only an ability to turn teams over at opportune times — mixed in with some red-zone effectiveness and a touch of late-season improvement — kept the defensive side of the ball from being a total disaster. Let’s face it. It’s tough to knock any unit that advances to the Super Bowl.
But linebacker is clearly a focal point, and the Patriots (No. 2 in the AP Pro32) have a dozen of them in camp. During the offseason, New England brought in two free agents — Trevor Scott (Oakland) and Bobby Carpenter (Detroit) — and spent a first-round draft pick on Dont’a Hightower (Alabama).
Co-captain Jerod Mayo, third-year pro Brandon Spikes — perhaps the team’s best run-stopper — and Hightower have been getting most of the first team reps, while Rob Nincovich has been seeing action both at linebacker and defensive end. Nincovich’s versatility allows the Patriots to switch back and forth quickly between a 3-4 and 4-3 look.
And they will likely need that variety.
“We have a lot of versatile guys on this team,” Mayo said. “Don’t'a, Nincovich, they can play a lot of positions.”
The Patriots need help in the pass rush from this crew, and that could come from Nincovich, who had 6.5 sacks last season, and Hightower, who had four sacks and 11 tackles for losses at Alabama last season. Chandler Jones, the other first-round pick from Syracuse, may also attack from the edge as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.
Spikes has been brought along slowly while recovering from a knee injury and Hightower has made steady progress in camp, where rookies are expected to be seen but not heard.
“It’s going pretty good. I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” Hightower said. “Doing whatever I can, whatever the coach asks me to do. Maybe not even start on defense, but special teams.”
Mayo has been a team leader since 2008, when was the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named a defensive captain in 2009, and was a first-team All-Pro in 2010. He said, given the surroundings, leadership came naturally.
“To be honest, I came into a great situation,” Mayo said. “Just look at the guys that were on that team. I just tried to be a sponge. Teddy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison. All those guys I could learn from. I just tried to go out each and every day and work hard.”
Mayo will be counted on to provide steadiness in the middle while leading the defense out of the woods.
“The defense has to come together this year,” Mayo said. “Last year, we had some good times and some bad times. We have a great offense, and anytime we get the ball in their hands, we have a good chance of winning.”
The Patriots have high hopes for Scott.
“He has some versatility, he’s young and he’s worked hard,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “He had a real good offseason for us in terms of our offseason program. He was one of our award winners there. He’s getting acclimated but again, a long way to go.”
The same can be said for the entire group.
NOTES: The shared practices with the New Orleans Saints will be open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday. The two teams will meet in preseason action on Thursday. .. Replacement officials working in place of the regular locked-out NFL officials worked Monday’s practice, and will be working the shared practices as well as the game . The Saints flew direct from Sunday’s Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, to Boston.