Patriots positional review: LB

Continuing our positional review/offseason preview, here's a look at the Patriots linebackers, ordered in percentage of defensive snaps played.

Dont'a Hightower

Age: 23

2013 status: Started 14 of 16 games played, leading the Patriots in both snaps among linebackers (74.5 percent) and tackles (97).

2013 highlights: Thrust into a pivotal role with Jerod Mayo out for much of the season, Hightower became the on-field defensive quarterback for the Patriots. Often wore the green dot as the communicator of signals and play calls. He had some struggles in pass coverage, but came on late in the season. Should be better with the return of Mayo next year.

Current contract runs through: 2016 season

Brandon Spikes

Age: 26

2013 status: Played in every regular-season game, starting 11. Was placed on injured reserve in advance of the first playoff game, reportedly in part because of missing a day of work.

2013 highlights: Spikes was once again an impact run defender for the Patriots, racking up 86 tackles. Had major struggles against the pass, however, playing sporadically in sub defensive packages. As a free agent this offseason, it's fair to wonder if his days in New England are over after the decision late in the year to place him on IR, which was also tied into his balky knee.

Current contract runs through: Free agent

Jerod Mayo

Age: 27

2013 status: Played in six games, starting them all. Was placed on injured reserve after tearing his pectoral.

2013 highlights: Mayo was his typical self when he was on the field in 2013: he gobbled up tackles with 55 in five-plus games, provided sensational on-field leadership and played virtually every defensive snap. His presence was sorely missed, but he worked hard as a pseudo-assistant coach when he went down.

Current contract runs through: 2017 season

Jamie Collins

Age: 24

2013 status: Played in every game, starting eight regular-season contests. Contributed on special teams and played a total of 25.8 percent of the regular-season defensive snaps.

2013 highlights: Collins was eased into defensive action as a rookie, but exploded in a playoff game against the Colts. His abundance of athleticism shows promise for the future. In a league where passing offenses force defenses into sub packages so often, Collins projects as a possible every-down linebacker in 2014 and beyond.

Current contract runs through: 2017 season

Dane Fletcher

Age: 27

2013 status: Played in 15 games, starting one. Was a core special teamer and played roughly 18 percent of the defensive snaps.

2013 highlights: Fletcher continued to provide steady special teams production in 2013 while also serving as a rotational sub package linebacker. He started one game but had his best effort against the Broncos in Week 12, totaling seven tackles.

Current contract runs through: Free agent

Others on the roster: Ja'Gared Davis, Steve Beauharnais (one defensive snap), Chris White (one defensive snap), Taylor Reed

POSITIONAL NEED: While Spikes is among the most notable free agents for the Patriots this offseason, a departure by the former second-round pick would not be crippling to this defense. With Mayo as the anchor and Hightower and Collins to flank him, the Patriots have a trio of solid front-line players. The return to health of Mayo and development of Collins are critical, as if Collins can consistently play on all three downs the Patriots will have a pair of dynamic athletes at the position. Beyond the projected starters, the Patriots have some depth in Beauharnais and Fletcher, but if Fletcher departs in free agency the team would serve itself well to add at least one more body to this mix.