FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — James Anderson is used to being a starting linebacker. Now he must fit in with younger players at that position on a better team. And, perhaps, get used to playing less.
Anderson signed with the New England Patriots last week after making 102 tackles with four sacks while starting all 16 games for the Chicago Bears last season, his eighth in the NFL.
But at just 235 pounds, he’s more effective at covering receivers than at stopping runners while trying to shed blocks by linemen who weigh at least 50 pounds more.
“I’m a little bit smaller than most of the other guys around here so, to make up for that, I’m going to have to be fast and be able to cover,” Anderson said Thursday. “So I take that as a strength and kind of work on it.”
The Patriots have a couple of openings at linebacker after losing free agents Brandon Spikes to the Buffalo Bills and Dane Fletcher to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New England didn’t draft a linebacker and has three returning starters — Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins — while playing primarily a 4-3 defense.
With the regular season three months away, Anderson has time to learn a new defense before the games count.
“I do feel like a rookie almost,” he said. “It’s a totally different defense than I’ve ever played. So just learning the techniques and how they want things done, I’ve got to spend more time in the playbook.”
Hightower had to do that after being drafted in the first round in 2012 and Collins had to do that after being taken in the second round last year.
“There’s always a huge difference in that second year in just having that experience and the confidence,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s not easy as a rookie. You’re going through a long year there with the combine, getting drafted and coming into a new place, learning the playbook. You don’t have much time off. That second year you’ve kind of been there, done that and now it’s just go out and play ball.”
Collins progressed last season when he started the last eight games, including two in the playoffs. He got the opportunity after a season-ending injury to Mayo in the sixth game and feels more comfortable this offseason.
“I’m very comfortable. I know the plays,” Collins said. “Just trying to pick up where I left off.” Hightower was impressed with Collins development as a rookie.
“I feel like he’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody (expected),” Hightower said. “He was a lot more mature his first year than some people are in their third year.”
Now it’s the 30-year-old Anderson’s turn to study the playbook and transfer his knowledge to the field. He’s doing that this week at the team’s organized team activities in advance of the mandatory three-day minicamp next week.
“I think the hardest thing is coming as one of the older guys in the room and having to go prove yourself to the guys that are here because being on a team you have to earn their respect,” he said. “I’m just trying to go out every day and work and trying to do that.”
Anderson was drafted in the third round in 2006 by the Carolina Panthers and spent seven seasons with them. In the past four seasons, he started 59 of his teams’ 64 games. But the Bears let him become a free agent and he had a good workout with the Patriots. “I kind of had an idea that I might have an opportunity to come here,” he said.
But he had to wait before they offered him a job. “I think you become anxious because you see free agency happen, you see guys getting signed,” he said.
The anxiety is gone. The acclimation continues. “It’s been great,” Anderson said. “You can obviously see why these guys have won so much, the work they put in, the attention, just how they work overall.”
NOTES: The Patriots signed rookie free agent WR Jeremy Johnson from Southern Methodist. As a senior, he had 112 catches for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. New England wraps up its four-day OTA in Friday.