The Patriots have their starting trio of linebackers from 2012 intact for next season in Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower, but for a couple of reasons, linebacker could be a position the team addresses at some point in the draft.
Spikes is an unrestricted free agent after next season, and the team has always done well to plan ahead through the draft to develop contingency plans in case a player is not retained when he hits the open market. Drafting a player this year would soften the blow if Spikes departs in 2014, and it would not be a surprise to see a market develop for the hard-hitting run stuffer.
On top of that, the Patriots struggled to find a second linebacker to effectively play next to Mayo in their nickel package, and both Spikes and Hightower are limited coverage linebackers. Spikes finished the year next to Mayo in the nickel package, but the Patriots' struggles defending the middle of the field was apparent in the AFC Championship.
Given the direction of the NFL as a passing league, coverage linebackers are critical to a defense, and that could be an area the Patriots look at during the draft. With that in mind, we asked ESPN's NFL draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr. to identify his top coverage linebackers during a Wednesday conference call.
"That's a good question, and that's certainly what you need," he replied. "You look at guys and I think [Kansas State's] Arthur Brown and his instincts and his feel for the game, Khaseem Greene from Rutgers is another kid, kind of in that [Buccaneers linebacker] Lavonte David type of mold. Zaviar Gooden from Missouri can fly around the field, [he's] one of the fastest outside linebackers in this draft. Jelani Jenkins from Florida is another kid, Sean Porter from [Texas] A&M showed ability to get after the quarterback and play in reverse at Texas A&M, playing in two different schemes during his career. ... Taylor Reed from SMU is another one, probably a late rounder or a priority free agent."