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Monday, February 17, 2014
Draft & free agency: Linebacker

By Mike Reiss

With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.

For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Next on the list: Linebacker

Draft: This is one of the few positions in the draft that remains more senior-dominated, as there aren't as many highly-rated underclassmen as other spots. Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr are the top-rated outside linebackers who project as first-round picks, and both will be interesting to follow in the coming years when compared to ultra-athletic 2013 Patriots top pick Jamie Collins (No. 52). Looks like a pretty strong position in the draft, according to analysts.

Free agency: Hard-hitting Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is among a group that will be valued differently based on what scheme a team plays. Spikes is at his best playing downhill. Washington's Brian Orakpo is the consensus top linebacker set to hit the market, while San Diego's Donald Butler is another solid player at the position whom the Chargers are hoping to re-sign before free agency begins. At first glance, this doesn't look like a position that is particularly deep in free agency.

Patriots perspective: With a projected starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, the Patriots look to be in good shape from a top-tier standpoint. Dane Fletcher, who carved out a niche on special teams, would presumably be welcomed back but might be more inclined to seek opportunities elsewhere with more upside for playing time on defense. Any Patriots additions at this position figure to come later in the draft or in the low-to-moderate levels of free agency with special teams in mind.