Patriots free-agent fit: Off-the-line LB

Third in a multipart series on free-agent fits at various positions leading into the start of free agency March 10.

Position: Off-the-line linebacker

Players under contract for 2015: Jerod Mayo (2017); Jamie Collins (2016), Dont'a Hightower (2016), Darius Fleming (2015), Cameron Gordon (2016), Deontae Skinner (2015)

Level of need: Moderate to high

Projected top targets: Akeem Ayers (Patriots), Jonathan Casillas (Patriots), Dane Fletcher (Buccaneers), Colin McCarthy (Titans), Chris White (Patriots)

Why Ayers fits: He played well for the Patriots in multiple roles after he was acquired in a midseason trade from the Titans, serving mostly as a designated pass-rusher on the end of the line of scrimmage in sub (which the Patriots were in 73.5 percent of the time in 2014). In the base defense, he played off the line (12 snaps in the Super Bowl) as the third 'backer alongside Collins and Hightower. As director of player personnel Nick Caserio said, "We were fortunate that it worked out the way it did."

Why Casillas fits: He was a productive special teams player upon being acquired from the Buccaneers in a midseason trade, totaling three tackles in his first game with the Patriots. He also filled in admirably on defense when injuries hit, displaying the intelligence and command to have the communication device in his helmet and lead the huddle if needed.

Why Fletcher fits: Originally signed by the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2010, he carved out a niche as a top special teams player before signing a one-year deal with Tampa last offseason in hopes of having a chance to play more defensively. He did (4 starts), and now he finds himself set for free agency again. He's already a proven fit in the system.

Why McCarthy fits: Bill Belichick was complimentary of him in 2012, noting his leadership, intelligence and overall skill set. McCarthy has had a tough run of injuries and projects as a low-cost, potential high-upside signing if he stays healthy. Maybe a change of scenery helps him get his career back on track after being derailed by injuries.

Why White fits: Core special teams player who quietly goes about his job. Enters his fifth NFL season in 2015.

Other names of note: Lance Briggs (Bears), Bruce Carter (Cowboys), Mason Foster (Buccaneers), A.J. Hawk (Packers), Mark Herzlich (Giants), David Harris (Jets), Malcolm Smith (Seahawks), Brandon Spikes (Bills), Sean Weatherspoon (Falcons).

Market conditions: Fairly deep in free agency, while the view of the draft varies depending on one's scheme.

Off-the-line linebacker-based questions: Will Mayo's contract, long rumored to be a target for a reduction, be addressed? Can team effectively restock special teams units if Ayers, Casillas and White don't return?