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Profile: Dane Fletcher returns to New England

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For Dane Fletcher, it felt good to be wanted once again by a family he’s familiar with.

As the former Montana State star enters his sixth season in the NFL, he’s returning to what he calls his second home. After a year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bozeman native signed a one-year contract with the New England Patriots, the franchise he broke into the NFL with in 2010.

“It always feels good to go to a team where they appreciate you,” said Fletcher in an interview with Skyline Sports following the Pats’ second day of training camp.

“It was a pretty cut and dry process coming back here really. I had a few words with Bill and it was a no-brainer to come back here and rejoin with my original group again. I know we will work hard and win some games this year.”

New England’s familiarity with Fletcher helped extend his career in all likelihood. Last season, Fletcher played in all 16 games for the first time in his career. He started four games for the Bucs, recording 30 total tackles, including 10 on special teams, a role that has become his lifeblood as an NFL player. But he tore his ACL the last game of the season.

He’s on the physically unable to perform list for an undetermined period of time. Still, the Patriots wanted him back, a nod of confidence for Fletcher as he was welcomed back by his former teammates with open arms.

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots“I played with these guys for four years prior to last year and coming back was just like coming back to family,” Fletcher said. “The linebacker room, the defense, the whole team, we are pretty close here. I love that. It was something I definitely missed while I was away.”

Fletcher has carved out a niche as a special teams demon during his five seasons in the league. He’s appeared in 54 games – he missed the 2012 season with a knee injury – and he’s recorded 41 of his 101 career tackles covering kicks. In 2013, he led New England with 15 special teams tackles.

Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Rob Nickovich are entrenched as New England’s regulars on the outside of its 3-4 scheme. Starting inside linebacker Jerod Mayo is coming back from last season’s knee surgery. Dont’a Hightower is back as an inside linebacker as well. Fletcher played defensive end at Montana State, earning Big Sky Defensive MVP honors as a senior in 2009. He made the unusual transition to standup inside linebacker for the Patriots.

“Dane’s in a very unusual situation,’’ New England head coach Bill Belichick told the Boston Globe in 2010. “It’s a short list of players who have gone from being defensive linemen to being inside linebackers that I’ve worked with: Harry Carson would be one, Teddy Bruschi would be two, and Dane would be a third example of that. Most of the time, those guys go from being defensive ends in college to outside linebackers at our level.

“To take a defensive lineman to an inside linebacker position, it’s a much bigger challenge, to go from a defensive lineman to a guy that has coverage responsibilities, formation responsibilities, to seeing the game from your feet, and from depth, as opposed to seeing it this far away from you, [that is] the guy across from you. It’s a whole different ballgame, and there’s not a lot of players that can do that.”

Last season, Fletcher again had to diversify. When Mason Foster went down, Fletcher found himself as the starting middle linebacker in Tampa Bay’s 4-3 defense, a much different gig than starting as an inside guy in a 3-4 lined up over the guard. Now he’s back competing for time on special teams and fighting for time at any linebacker spot he can.

daneFletch“I think I can really play here, contribute to the team and help us win,” Fletcher said. “They always give me a chance to compete. Every position, they have someone there to compete and I’m here to compete at linebacker and on special teams. I think everyone is at this position. Whether it’s inside or outside, it’s whatever they ask of me at this point. I feel comfortable with the defense so stick me wherever and I’ll make it work.”

Fletcher has shown playmaking ability in his career. He’s got 4.5 sacks, an interception, three forced fumbles, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.

Although Fletcher is considered an NFL veteran now, he’s still in search of his first long-term contract. His contract with Tampa Bay was a one-year, $1.2 million deal. His contract this year in New England has a base salary of $745,000 and came with a $20,000 signing bonus. If he can stay active for 10 games or more, he can earn as much as $825,000.

“The crazy thing about the NFL is there’s no security,” Fletcher said. “I’m happy where I am but I’m not content at all. I’m just grinding every day to be a better player. What I’ve done in the past doesn’t matter. At this point, it’s what we have to look forward to here and it starts day to day for training camp.”

At the urging of Montana State ninth-year defensive line coach Bo Beck and his family, Fletcher has tried to invest his money intelligently. He has purchased a piece of land in Bozeman and he’s building an athletic training center in hopes of helping local kids who are like he once was achieve their college dreams. Once upon a time, Fletcher was a partial scholarship kid out of Bozeman High who’s first love was hockey.

Fletcher’s Bozeman and Montana State ties are still tight. He talks with Beck frequently and spent part of the summer in his hometown. Montana State is in the midst of revamping a defense that has struggled mightily the last season and a half. With Kane Ioane at the helm as the new defensive coordinator, MSU is trying to play a more multiple scheme complete with three and four-man fronts. Because Fletcher has practiced and played in one of the NFL’s most intricate defensive schemes, he’s spent some time up at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse sharing secrets with some of the men that once mentored him.

“I went up there and watched film with them quite a bit this off-season with Coach Ioane and Coach Beck and everybody because they are bringing a new defense into a philosophy,” Fletcher said. “So I’ve been helping there with what I understand about a 3-4 and what not. A lot of brains helping each other out for that.”

Fletcher was part of some of the better defenses at a school with a rich defensive tradition. Last season, MSU gave up the third-most passing yards of anyone in the FCS. Since Rob Ash took over in 2007, Montana State has led the Big Sky in total defense and scoring defense three times each, including leading the league in total defense during Fletcher’s junior and senior seasons. He’s got faith his alma mater can get things back on track.

“They look good from what I saw,” Fletcher said. “They have a lot of work ahead of them but I have high hopes for the ‘Cats, for sure. I know those guys will get that defense turned around.”

 

(Photos courtesy of the New England Patriots).

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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