FOXBOROUGH (AP) - Linebacker is one of the more competitive positions in New England's training camp this summer, and it makes sense. After all, the Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in team defense last season, ahead of only the Green Bay Packers.
Only an ability to turn teams over at opportune times - mixed in with some red-zone effectiveness and a touch of late-season improvement - kept the defensive side of the ball from being a total disaster. Let's face it. It's tough to knock any unit that advances to the Super Bowl.
But linebacker is clearly a focal point, and the Patriots have a dozen of them in camp. During the offseason, New England brought in two free agents - Trevor Scott (Oakland) and Bobby Carpenter (Detroit) - and spent a first-round draft pick on Dont'a Hightower (Alabama).
Co-captain Jerod Mayo, third-year pro Brandon Spikes - perhaps the team's best run-stopper - and Hightower have been getting most of the first team reps, while Rob Nincovich has been seeing action both at linebacker and defensive end. Nincovich's versatility allows the Patriots to switch back and forth quickly between a 3-4 and 4-3 look.
And they will likely need that variety.
"We have a lot of versatile guys on this team," Mayo said. "Don't'a, Nincovich, they can play a lot of positions."