- Field Yates, ESPN Insider
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Following up with some thoughts on restricted free-agent linebacker Dane Fletcher coming to terms on a one-year deal with the Patriots to remain with the team in 2013. Fletcher missed all of the 2012 regular season after tearing his ACL during a preseason game.
1. Examining his 2011 role: As a refresher, Fletcher was on the field for just over 22 percent of the defensive snaps during the 2011 season, the last time he played in a regular-season game. That included just one defensive snap during Super Bowl XLVI, as Tracy White was called upon to play a larger role in that game. Fletcher's primary value that season was as a core special-teams player, something he projects to continue to do going forward.
2. Subpackage pass defender? With Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower entrenched as starters, Fletcher doesn't project at this point to be a primary cog in the Patriots' base defense next season. But he could be used is as a sub-defense player, subbing in for either Spikes or Hightower when the Patriots go to their nickel package. It's not a given that such would be the case, but Fletcher showed good athleticism on the field during the 2012 preseason. If the team opts to beef up its pass defense at the linebacker spot, it has numerous options.
3. Depth inside:Beyond his special-teams value, Fletcher's most important contributions in 2013 could be as a reserve player at inside linebacker, where the team was relatively thin in 2012. Mike Rivera was the top inside linebacker reserve, though he was seldom used last season. It's tough to read too much into preseason depth charts and lineups, but Fletcher was on the field with the starting defense for parts of training camp before his injury.
4. ACL impact: Like any other player coming off a major injury, the process of getting back into playing shape will be a gradual one for Fletcher. Due to the timing of his injury, he'll have nearly a full year before training camp begins, which is ample time for a normal recovery from an ACL tear.
5. Patriots take care of business early: Though losing restricted free agents is uncommon in the NFL, the Patriots got ahead of the game in coming to terms with Fletcher sooner rather than later. The team has a number of decisions to make in free agency -- headlined by Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer -- but securing a young player now can be filed under good business.