Print and Go Back ESPN.com: New England Patriots [Print without images]

Sunday, March 9, 2014
Free-agent fit: Linebacker

By Mike Reiss

Eighth installment in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 11.

Position: Inside/middle linebacker (off the line)

Players under contract for 2014: Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, Chris White, Ja'Gared Davis, Taylor Reed

Level of need: Moderate-to-low

Projected top targets: Dane Fletcher (Patriots), Ramon Humber (Saints), Dekoda Watson (Buccaneers).

Why Fletcher fits: He has spent the first four years of his career with the Patriots, making the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker/special teamer. He led the Patriots in special teams tackles last season with 15.

Why Humber fits: Similar to Fletcher, he was a solid special teams performer for the Saints in 2013, recovering two onside kicks and totaling six solo tackles in the kicking game.

Why Watson fits: One of the Buccaneers’ best special teams players, he’d project as a core member of the kicking game while providing depth on defense.

Other names of note: Jon Beason (Giants), Karlos Dansby (Cardinals), Stephen Nicholas (Falcons), Daryl Smith (Ravens), Brandon Spikes (Patriots), Jonathan Vilma (Saints), Wesley Woodyard (Broncos).

Franchise tag: None.

Market conditions: The most likely avenue to find a potential three-down linebacker is through the draft. There are a few starting-caliber options in free agency who wouldn’t project to help on special teams, which will limit their value to some.

Questions to answer at the position: Is Jamie Collins ready for a prominent three-down role? How is Jerod Mayo’s recovery from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle last October? Who replaces the hard-hitting edge brought by Brandon Spikes? Will Dont’a Hightower take another step forward in his development?