Starters -- WLB Jerod Mayo, MLB Brandon Spikes, SLB Rob Ninkovich.
Backups -- OLB Trevor Scott, ILB Dont'a Hightower, ILB Dane Fletcher,
OLB Jermaine Cunningham, ILB Bobby Carpenter, ILB Niko Koutouvides, ILB
Tracy White, ILB Mike Rivera, ILB Jeff Tarpinian.
Mayo is the
captain, Pro Bowler and $50 million man in this group. He plays inside
in the 3-4, but saw plenty of action in the Will spot in the 4-3 a year
ago. Assuming the Patriots stick with that front -- which is a bold
assumption when dealing with Belichick -- Mayo should be more at home
and ready to make more plays from the weak side.
If Spikes (knee) can
get and stay healthy, he's shown he can make plays in the middle with
his aggressive, instinctive style. He could be at a career crossroad in
New England as he looks to prove he can be relied upon.
Ninkovich is a
versatile edge presence who the coaches love. He almost never left the
field a year ago, but should get a bit more help this year as he looks
to build on his career-best 6.5 sacks. He can also play some end
depending on the scheme.
Hightower is a versatile first-round pick who
will move all around the front and serve as a sub rusher if he can get
acclimated to the scheme, which should be aided by the similarities
between New England's defense and that which he ran under Nick Saban at
Cunningham had an OK rookie season in 2010 as a second-round
pick and then fell off the depth chart last fall. He has yet to show
any real pass-rush ability and gets caught up on blocks too often. He
could be in a battle for his roster life in his third season.
is a former undrafted player who's developed into a versatile backup
type, special teamer and sub down specialist.
Carpenter has been an NFL
disappointment as a former first-round pick, but his versatility could
win him a job. He got a lot of reps this spring in OTAs and minicamp.
Scott may be the wild card in the group. The former Raider is a
defensive end/outside linebacker who could be leaned upon to help the
pass rush. He's shown signs of an ability to get to the passer in his
career in Oakland, but has never stayed healthy or produced with any
consistency. He'll get the chance to perform in New England. White is a
career special teamer (though he did actually start the Super Bowl last
February), who is respected by his teammates and coaches.