Fletcher surprise contributor in 2010

When a team posts a 14-2 regular-season record like the New England Patriots did in 2010, there are no shortage of feel-good stories along the way. One of the best was authored by Dane Fletcher.

First, he beat long odds to make the team as a rookie free agent. Then he appeared in 14 games, his primary contributions coming on special teams. Along the way, Fletcher showed flashes of promise in making the challenging Tedy Bruschi-style transition from college defensive end to NFL inside linebacker, his performance against the Green Bay Packers in late December standing out as one of his best.

For the 24-year-old Fletcher, the goal now is to make the important jump from freshman to sophomore -- which coach Bill Belichick often cites as the time in which players make the most improvement -- despite the NFL lockout. With that in mind, he's returned to Massachusetts after spending most of January and February in Montana.

Fletcher had been working out at Montana State, where he wreaked havoc on the Big Sky Conference as a pass-rushing defensive end from 2007-2009, before deciding to surround himself with teammates such as Jerod Mayo in as close to an NFL-type environment as can exist during the lockout.

"You could go to any gym and have the basic tools, the same weights and whatnot, but it's more about competition at this level. I can go back home and train with guys in college, but that's not going to make me any better at this next level," explained Fletcher, a native of Bozeman, Mont.

"That's probably the No. 1 thing; it's great training that we have and on top of competition with everything. You go into the weight room and compete, you go onto the field and compete, the sand pit and compete. It just depends on what mode we're in. There is no taking a day off."

Fletcher said he thinks the work with Mayo and about 10-15 other teammates, coupled with more knowledge he's gained on nutrition through his first year in the NFL, has paid dividends.

"Once I got out of college and got around professional football players, I really pay attention to what I eat and drink now, and everything that I take. The biggest improvement I've probably had, between last year and this year, is my nutrition," he said. "I feel like I'm more lean, not as fatty as I was last year, so I've leaned down, but I'm weighing quite a bit more. I'm in way better shape than I was last year."

Fletcher played last season at around 240-242 pounds. He's up to the 246-248 range, and he's encouraged that he feels faster despite the added weight.

The increased speed figures to help first on special teams, where Fletcher was credited with 11 tackles last season (10 solo) as well as when he finds his way onto the field defensively, which he did for 153 of 1,101 snaps (13.9 percent) in 2010.

Fletcher was mostly used in sub packages, sometimes spying opposing running backs, while also showing spark as an occasional blitzer. One of his biggest challenges was learning pass coverages, which weren't part of his responsibilities as a college defensive end.

Fletcher said he felt fortunate to have a solid support network as he made that transition.

"I'm in with a great group of coaches and Belichick's in with our defense every day, working with me. Also, I watched Mayo, who just went to the Pro Bowl and I was behind guys who really let me know exactly what to call and whatnot, and what to watch for early on in my career," he said, adding that he dedicated himself to film study on a regular basis.

With Fletcher joining Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton, the Patriots are arguably as young and deep at inside linebacker as they've been in Belichick's 12-year Patriots tenure. One year after joining the team, Fletcher feels more a part of that group, along with the team's outside linebackers.

"I'm a rookie free agent, and I think at the beginning of last year, it was hard to get in with a good group like that," he said. "They know that it's hard for you to make the team, and you know it's hard for you to make the team, and they might not want to get particularly close to you when you might just get cut tomorrow. I've become particularly close to all the linebackers. We're a real tight group and we get along great with each other. We're all young guys and I really enjoy that."

When looking back at his rookie campaign, one aspect that stood out to Fletcher was competitiveness and the importance of rising up each day to meet new NFL challenges. To do that takes a rock-solid focus.

"More than anything, it's just learning about prioritizing what's important in your life," he said. "In college, you have your studies to manage. That's very important, and you have the social life and whatnot. Once you get to the NFL, you're paid to play football and there are so many other distractions -- people wanting you to do this, that, this.

"You always have to put football first, so you have to ask questions, 'If I do this, or that, is that going to help me in the long run?' I think that's what I've taken most about being in the NFL, getting that routine down and knowing that football and my health comes first."

Mike Reiss covers the New England Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.