Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot that positively needs to be better in 2018. Will the linebacker group get better with players returning from injury or is an influx of talent needed.
OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES
HOW THEY PERFORMED
Disappointingly. Early in the season, they ineffectiveness at linebacker and in the secondary led to ex-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick opting to slide Donta Hightower back from the edge to a linebacker spot. The group, which had already lost another LB/Edge hybrid in Shea McClellin, enjoyed Hightower’s presence for just five games. Communication improved. Busts ceased. It was the way it was supposed to look. Then Hightower got hurt. A sprained knee kept him out of two; a torn pec suffered against the Falcons ended his season on October 25. That left the team with just one multifaceted linebacker – Kyle Van Noy. And he played really well. He missed three games with a calf injury but he finished with 58 tackles and he was – by the end of the season – seeming to understand the nuance of the Patriots defense and doing what Jerod Mayo stresses over and over: getting everyone on the same page. Elandon Roberts was a disappointment in his second season. He’s a below-average NFL linebacker whose physical limitations are mitigated somewhat by want-to and motor, but he’s a problem (the 69th ranked linebacker in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus). The Patriots got zero from David Harris. Marquis Flowers is a low-budget box safety/linebacker who’s got good athletic attributes but – after being acquired at the end of training camp – found himself with way more on his plate than belonged there. He had his moments of competency but also got lit up in the Super Bowl. Nicholas Grigsby is a special teams guy.
WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018
Van Noy, Harris, Roberts, Grigsby, Hightower, McClellin.
HOW DIRE IS THE NEED
The need is dictated in part by the scheme and since the scheme is always hard to pin down and there is a new defensive coordinator taking over (presuming Brian Flores) it becomes that much more difficult. But let’s look at it from above. Hightower’s injury issues aren’t going to diminish. Roberts’ limitations in coverage and his pedestrian ability against the run are what they are. Van Noy is fine to good. The team needs a thumper that’s better than Roberts and younger than Harris, especially after we watched the way the Eagles walk through tacklers in space in the Super Bowl (when the front-seven can build a wall as they did vs. the Titans and Jags, they are fine). They also need to start shopping for a suitable box-safety linebacker to replace Patrick Chung because the robotic and uninstinctive Jordan Richards ain’t cutting it. If Van Noy, Hightower, McClellin and Roberts stay healthy all season, terrific. Good linebacker group. But what are the odds? Slim, right? Other positions are higher needs right now, but this is a top-four need area.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY
The team had interest in Navarro Bowman when he left the Niners but Bowman signed in Oakland. He’s a helluva ‘backer and showed it with the Raiders. A crusher against the run. The Titans’ Avery Williamson is just 6-1, 240 – shorter than New England likes – but he’s 25, smart and productive (92 tackles in 2017 including nine vs. Patriots). Washington’s Zach Brown is also up after one productive season with Washington but he’s probably going to be seeking significant dough. There’s no real need to hire an old lion like Paul Posluszny to come in and be a two-down addition, especially early in free agency. They are useful, no doubt, but wouldn’t be cost effective. Expect them to re-sign Flowers and continue to groom him. There is upside there. The draft seems a wiser place to forage.
WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT
When Bill Belichick described Patrick Chung as one of the best players in football it was because of the myriad things he can do. He can get down in the box and work against the running game. He can cover slot receivers. He’s a clampdown guy on tight ends. He doesn’t play like he’s 205, he plays like he’s 220. A player like Chung or, even better, Atlanta’s Deion Jones feels like the prototype for the position. Until offenses pivot and start running RPO with 250-pound nimble backs who run through arms at the second level. Given the Patriots are in five and six-defensive back sets so often, the hybrid backers could be the direction they go. So consider Iowa’s Josey Jewell, who’ll be available after Round 1. Or Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State, also a mid-round guy with massive upside. Jewell is a 6-1, 230-pounder. Vander Esch is 6-4, 240. There’s a lot of variation in their games. If the Patriots want to go early, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is a linebacker-level Chung in terms of being on attack mode.
HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT
The best and most productive linebackers the Patriots have had since 2008 were Jerod Mayo and Donta Hightower. Not coincidentally, they were first-round picks. The Patriots need to spend draft capital on smart, disciplined players with great measurables and leadership. Enough with the projects and projections (i.e. Jamie Collins, who was a brilliant player but got jettisoned because he bristled at his role). Those guys are had in the first round. Unfortunately, the tackle position which begged addressing last draft was nickel-and-dimed with the selection of Antonio Garcia in the third round and he spent the year on IR with an illness. Tight end, quarterback and corner also loom as areas that need early addressing. You can’t wait for talent at those positions, you have to go and get it in the draft or target a player in free agency who isn’t a special teamer with upside and smarts. The day is coming when the luxury of Tom Brady hanging 30 every Sunday is gone. Finding a bigger, better Chung (or a smaller, faster Hightower) should be an offseason priority.