Fletcher makes leap to bigger role

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The significance of the moment wasn't lost on Dane Fletcher. One year ago, he was the undrafted free agent trying desperately to learn a new position in hopes of simply earning a roster spot with the Patriots. On Thursday night, Fletcher sported the green dot on his helmet and handled the bulk of the defensive play-calling duties during New England's exhibition opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"[Coach Bill] Belichick kinda put it in a good summary, that I didn't know where the field was last year in my first game," joked Fletcher. "I made a little leap last year to this year, and I'll keep making those type of progressions. One step at a time."

Make no mistake, he's made a leap, not a step.

On a night the superstars didn't leave the sideline, Fletcher took advantage of his latest opportunity. With shades of Ted Johnson in his No. 52 jersey, Fletcher recorded four tackles -- including two for a loss -- from his inside linebacker position while spearheading a New England defense that allowed only four field goals in a 47-12 thrashing of Jacksonville at Gillette Stadium.

And although he fully admitted he was "a little shaky" given the play-calling duties that are typically reserved for an All-Pro like Jerod Mayo, the increased responsibility further demonstrated how he's no longer in an underdog role.

"It's my second year in the NFL, you just gotta think that's the past," Fletcher said when asked about his progress since being picked up as an undrafted defensive end out of Montana State. "This is the now. I don't look at it as I'm undrafted anymore, that was kinda the story last year. I'm trying to find a role on this defense. Wherever they want to put me is fine with me.

"What is going to be the story [this year]? Whatever the coaches decide it will be."

Fletcher is still selling himself a little short as he's made the most out of every opportunity he's been presented. Belichick described last year how he's seen only two players -- Tedy Bruschi and Harry Carson -- make the switch from college defensive end to professional middle linebacker. Not only did Fletcher do that, but when Brandon Spikes -- New England's second-round pick (62nd overall) last year -- endured a four-game suspension, it was Fletcher who took advantage of the extra reps.

After being inactive for the first three games of the year, Fletcher went on to play the final 14 games of the season, his campaign highlighted by his first career sack against Green Bay, sealing New England's late-season triumph over the eventual Super Bowl champs.

Now, with Spikes sidelined by injuries to start the 2011 season, Fletcher continues to take advantage. He even seems more comfortable as New England transitions to a 4-3 base defense, allowing him freedom to make plays at middle linebacker.

Which is exactly what happened Thursday. The Patriots offense sputtered early, and with Jacksonville already out front, 6-0, the Jaguars took over at their own 18 with 7:03 to play in the first quarter. On the drive's first snap, Fletcher shot the gap and went pretty much untouched into the backfield, dropping running back Rashad Jennings for a 6-yard loss that prompted a three-and-out.

New England scored on the ensuing drive and ultimately scored 47 of the game's final 53 points.

Right place, right time, Fletcher suggested when asked about the play. That'd be believable if it didn't occur with such regularity when he's on the field. In the second quarter, Fletcher practically sprinted past Jacksonville center Jason Spitz while invading the backfield and dropped running back Deji Karim for a 2-yard loss.

In theory, the Patriots' switch to a 4-3 defense would work against a player like Fletcher, as it essentially takes an inside linebacker off the field in favor of another defensive lineman. But the formation frees him up to be a playmaker when he's on the field, and that suits Fletcher just fine.

"I like to hit," said Fletcher. "There's no lie about that; I like to hit … I like [the 4-3], getting a little distance between [the opposition] and popping some guys."

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise, then, that Fletcher's been a hit with his coaching staff. Hence, the increased responsibilities.

"He was the most experienced linebacker we had on the field," said Belichick. "We had some other guys that weren't playing, but Dane has come a long way in terms of his understanding of the defense, calling signals, making adjustments and those kinds of things. And the signal calling is really a new responsibility for him, but we felt like it would be good to give that to him instead of Gary [Guyton]. Gary has done it before, so just to give Dane that experience tonight and see how he handled it. It seemed to go fairly smoothly. We still got fouled up there a couple times, but overall it was decent."

Fletcher admitted the noise was a bit overwhelming (and we are not talking about the crowd; it was a preseason game devoid of star power, after all).

"It was a little shaky that first series; there's a lot going on, a lot of personnel changes, but eventually I kinda calmed down," Fletcher said. "It takes a little bit to think on your own when you've got music in your ears -- not good music either, especially when you don't make a good play."

Fortunately, Fletcher didn't appear to make many bad decisions. As Mayo departed the Patriots' locker room, he flashed a smile and hollered at Fletcher as the media crowd grew around his locker. Fellow linebacker Tracy White requested a shoutout as he departed the room (and Fletcher obliged).

After all, he's willing to do whatever's asked of him around here. Just like moving to linebacker last season.

"I'm a linebacker now, there's no way I'm going back to the d-line," Fletcher said. "I feel comfortable as a linebacker in this scheme."

Later, he hedged ever-so slightly.

"I can't imagine going back to defensive end, but if they asked me to, I would. But I kinda like the inside."

The Patriots kinda like Fletcher there, too.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.