After spending four years as a slave—his words, not mine—to "doing your job" and "executing your assignment" in New England, Brandon Spikes was freed to prowl the confines of Ralph Wilson Stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Addition by subtraction.
The New England Patriots will certainly miss Spikes' potent mix of passion, fire and unpredictable greatness, but they are set up perfectly to improve on their play in his absence. Jerod Mayo returns from his pectoral injury, while Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower weathered the storm last year and came out of it stronger and smarter.
As Doug Kyed from NESN.com stated, "all the Patriots are missing is the class clown." Spikes' penchant for goofing around didn't end in the meeting room; it sometimes carried over to the field.
Mayo summed Spikes' absence up well to Kyed:
I think we have guys in the room that are able to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played and go out there and make the same plays. I think we have a lot of talented guys in the room and in the front seven.
Mayo's successful return—both as a leader and as a player—is perhaps the linchpin in holding the front seven together. He can man the "Will" position, and with Collins having free reign at the "Mike," Hightower can slide over to a more natural spot at "Sam," where defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can hide some of his deficiencies.
Hightower was a more effective pass-rusher than Spikes in 2013, supposedly one of Spikes' bailiwicks. He was able to record a pressure on 17 of 71 rush attempts Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while Spikes was only successful on 8 of 62 attempts.
Not being able to hide some of Spikes' shortcomings was one of the main issues with last year's defense.
Spikes was at his best when defending the run, earning a plus-13.1 rating against the run, according to Pro Football Focus, including 48 stops. Patriots fans were treated to the explosive celebrations of Spikes after making a big play, but they rarely saw the exasperated looks of teammates and coaches when he overran plays and improvised in Brandon Meriweather-esque fashion.
This 2014 team projects to have one of the better pass defenses in recent Patriots history. However, it only takes one open receiver to make a play. Letting Spikes go—leaving only Hightower as a potential coverage issue—was the prudent choice.
Spikes' minus-2.7 rating in coverage is also an issue that adding more Collins—who earned a plus-2.9 coverage rating in the playoffs—will help assuage.
Effectively switching out Spikes for Collins and shuffling the positions results in a more flexible and balanced trio. Take a look at what they both bring to the table.
As Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com wrote, "Bill Belichick has found a new sort of prototype. Nearly 30 years removed from establishing what NFL teams look for in a 3-4 linebacker, Collins is the right player for this era."
Look for the new prototype to be the necessary bridge between the front seven and the stacked defensive secondary to propel this Patriots defense deep into the playoffs.