NFL context: Pats & inside linebackers

Eighth in an ongoing series looking at each position on the Patriots roster and how it is viewed when compared to the rest of the NFL:

Projected starters: Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton

Top backups: Tyrone McKenzie, Brandon Spikes, Eric Alexander, Thomas Williams, Dane Fletcher

NFL chatter: What a difference a few years can make. For most of the last decade, Bill Belichick relied on a more experienced group at inside linebacker, with Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Ted Johnson and even Junior Seau. The position is now defined by youth and potential, although with that comes an element of the unknown. Mayo, the 2008 Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a player that many coaches and scouts feel a defense can be built around. After a stellar rookie season, Mayo's production did not spike in 2009, in part because he was playing through a knee injury.

Overall depth chart: Mayo is locked in at one inside linebacker spot, which will most often be on the weakside. Guyton was the other starter in 2009, but he now faces competition from McKenzie (2009 third-round pick) and Spikes (2010 second-round pick). Williams will be a player to watch in training camp, as he has had a solid offseason to put himself in the mix for a roster spot. Fletcher looks like a practice squad prospect as he makes the Tedy Bruschi-like transition from college defensive end (Montana State) to NFL inside linebacker.

Final analysis: A promising group. Not an elite unit based on where the players are at this point of their careers, but a group that has potential to grow together, potentially rising from middle of the NFL pack to the upper tier.

Other positions: Quarterbacks; Running backs; Wide receivers; Tight ends; Offensive line; Defensive line; Outside linebackers