Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

A closer look at the roster as training camp arrives. In this part of the series we look at the Linebackers.

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 Alabama.

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.

Fletcher 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.

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