Patriots

Prototypical Patriots: McMillan, Anzalone make sense at linebacker

Prototypical Patriots: McMillan, Anzalone make sense at linebacker

The Patriots made what might have been their most important move of this busy offseason when they re-upped Dont'a Hightower, but that doesn't mean that they won't look to add a linebacker in the draft later this month. 

PHIL PERRY'S PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS DRAFT PREVIEW

Without a first- or second-round pick at the moment, it may be difficult for them to find the next to follow in the Tedy Bruschi, Jerod Mayo, Hightower line, but nabbing an every-down player to pair with the newly re-signed defensive captain and take some of the load off of Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Shea McClellin seems like it isn't totally out of the question.

As we mentioned in this week's seven-round mock draft, we should have an idea of what Bill Belichick typically likes to see in linebackers he's thinking about drafting. And we do. If you have good size, sound instincts and put together a productive collegiate career, you'll have a chance to chip in on the second level of the Patriots defense. If you played in the SEC and have experience on special teams, even better. 

The following is a group of 'backers -- from potential first-rounders to potential undrafted free agents -- who fit the profile and may end up in New England before the spring is out. They are the first group we've identified in this 12-part pre-draft series as Prototypical Patriots.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt, 6-foot-3, 235 pounds: Cunningham is on the light end of the spectrum when it comes to what the Patriots usually want, but his length (34.5-inch arms), explosiveness (35-inch vertical, 125-inch broad jump) and college production (16.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, first-team All-SEC) make him an intriguing fit. The Patriots may need to trade up into the first round to grab him, but they've shown interest: Belichick skipped Clemson's pro day in order to see Cunningham in person and run him through drills at Vandy.

Tyus Bowser, Houston, 6-foot-3, 247 pounds: Bowser looks like the closest to a Jamie Collins clone that this draft has to offer. He's not quite the same kind of athlete, but to put together the combine he did -- recording a 4.65-second 40-yard dash, a 37.5-inch vertical, a 127-inch broad jump and a 6.75 three-cone drill -- at his size? Impressive. The former Cougars basketball player projects as an edge rusher in the eyes of many, but he has the movement skills to play off the line and cover. With the pre-draft buzz he's received, it's looking like he won't last into the third round.

Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds: One of our featured players in our first mock draft of the season, McMillan makes all kinds of sense for New England. He has the size. He clocked a better 40 time than most expected at the combine (4.61 seconds) showing he could quite possibly be a four-down player. And he played under a Belichick confidant in Buckeyes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. He's another linebacker Belichick has gone out of his way to get to know a little better during the pre-draft process

Alex Anzalone, Florida, 6-foot-3, 241 pounds: Another gifted athlete from the SEC, Anzalone was among the top linebackers at the combine when it came to the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and the shuttles. He has the traits of a core special teamer and has been compared to former Patriots linebacker Jonathan Casillas by Pro Football Focus. The major question mark with Anzalone is can he stay on the field? He was limited to just 577 career snaps for the Gators, but his injury history may make him a low risk, high reward selection in the middle rounds. He was one of the players Belichick would have seen at the school's pro day in Gainesville after leaving last month's league meetings. 

Kendall Beckwith, LSU, 6-foot-2, 243 pounds: A torn ACL suffered late last season will drop Beckwith in the draft, but if he's expected to make a full recovery, he checks plenty of boxes for the Patriots. A productive two-and-a-half-year starter in arguably the nation's top conference, he showed he could get up the field to pressure quarterbacks and that he was comfortable dropping into zones. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to another former SEC standout, current Texans linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who Belichick has held in high regard since his days at Mississippi State. 

Marquel Lee, Wake Forest, 6-foot-3, 240 pounds: A two-time captain for the Demon Deacons, Lee showed good instincts in the running game and patience against the pass but is in all likelihood a Day 3 prospect. Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores put him through a workout recently to get a better feel for what he can do. 

Ben Gedeon, Michigan, 6-foot-2, 244 pounds: Gedeon is a sure tackler with long arms (32.5 inches) and vice-grip hands (10 inches) who played with reckless abandon as he picked up second-team All-Big Ten honors for the Wolverines this past season. What might make him an interesting prospect for the Patriots toward the back-end of draft weekend is his experience as a four-year player in the kicking game.

Calvin Munson, San Diego State University, 6-foot-1, 245 pounds: If the Patriots want a physical off-the-ball linebacker with an unrelenting motor and an ability to contribute on special teams, they could be interested in Munson, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals coming out of high school. A four-year contributor with nearly 300 total tackles and 36.5 tackles for a loss over his final three collegiate seasons, he looks run-game ready but may have some work to do to improve in coverage. Munson could be drafted more quickly than some expected after a strong pro day where he ran a 4.68-second 40, jumped 32 inches in the vertical and 117 inches in the broad jump. 

Samson Ebukam, Eastern Washington, 6-foot-3, 240 pounds: Ebukam has the size and explosiveness to potentially serve in a variety of roles for the Patriots. Some believe he's destined to become an edge rusher due to his burst (had a vertical leap of 39 inches and a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at his pro day), but he has the size that the Patriots like in their off-the-ball 'backers. Still raw, it may take the Nigerian-born, Oregon-raised Ebukam a year or so before he'll be ready to handle responsibilities given to him defensively. But on special teams? That's where the rare combination of his frame and movement skills could flash immediately. At this point in the draft, a high-upside defender with ready-made kick-coverage ability seems like a perfect match.

Brooks Ellis, Arkansas, 6-foot-2, 240 pounds: The top tackler for the Razorbacks over the course of the last two seasons, Ellis is touted as a smart, reliable, technician who happens to have three years of experience in the kicking game and submitted one of the quickest three-cone times among linebackers at the combine (6.8 seconds). A pre-med student, Ellis posted a 3.8 GPA and traveled to Belize with some of his biology classmates in the summer leading up to his final collegiate season. 

Richie Brown, Mississippi State, 6-foot-2, 236 pounds: A two-year starter for the Bulldogs, he cracked 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons, picking up 17 total tackles for loss and eight sacks. Another potential late-round selection, Brown will have to earn his place in the league by chipping in on "teams."

Eric Wilson (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) of Cincinnati, Steven Taylor (6-1, 225) of Houston and James Onwualu (6-1, 230) of Notre Dame are all intriguing players who seem to fall just below the typical physical thresholds to which the Patriots often hold their linebackers. They could, however, be intriguing fits based on their outlook as special-teamers.

Wilson reportedly had a private workout scheduled with the Patriots, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spent some time speaking with Onwualu at Notre Dame's pro day.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 

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The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.