Patriots

Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

While it remains to be seen how exactly David Harris will fit into Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defensive scheme, he is a known commodity in terms of his instincts and football IQ. 

Will those traits be enough to earn him a key role immediately? And with whom will he be competing for time alongside Dont'a Hightower? 

Let's have a look at what the Patriots have at the linebacker spot now that Harris is in the mix.

Dont'a Hightower, 6-foot-3, 265 pounds: The signal-caller for the Patriots defense and a first-time captain last season, Hightower opted to re-sign with the team as an unrestricted free agent for a deal worth $35.5 million over four years. Hightower is an every-down player who is critical to the team's ability to stop the run. He's also improved significantly in coverage over the course of his career to the point where he's one of the best at his position at limiting yards after the catch. And when he's asked to rush the passer, he's among the game's most efficient in that regard. His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI was the turning point in New England's improbable comeback win. 

David Harris, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds: Among the former Jet's best qualities is his durability, as he has missed just one regular-season game (it came in 2016) in the last eight seasons. The 33-year-old's percentage of snaps played between 2009 and 2015 reads as follows, according to Pro Football Focus: 94.8 percent, 97.0, 93.2, 99.4, 99.8, 99.4, 92.2. Harris possesses the size the Patriots often look for in their middle linebackers, and he has experience serving as the primary communicator for a defense, which Belichick and Patricia would likely value. In 2014, Harris tied his career-high in sacks with 5.5. Per PFF he was fifth among linebackers last season in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap (0.73). 

Elandon Roberts, 6-feet, 235 pounds: Going into his second year out of the University of Houston, Roberts made eye-opening plays as a rookie in the running game, using his strength and anticipation to occasionally overpower linemen. With a full NFL offseason under his belt, Roberts would land in the category of second-year players who could make a "leap" headed into 2017. He played 35 percent of defensive snaps for the Patriots last year. 

Kyle Van Noy, 6-foot-3, 243 pounds: Van Noy's relatively unique combination of size and athleticism makes him another versatile piece for Belichick and Patricia. After arriving to the Patriots via trade mid-season last year, he was frequently used in coverage in the middle of the field and deployed as a blitzer. He had 34 tackles in 10 games with the Patriots (including playoffs) and recorded a half-sack in the Super Bowl. 

Shea McClellin, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds: After Hightower and Jamie Collins, it was Shea McClellin who played more snaps in 2016 than any other Patriots linebacker (382). A versatile option, McClellin was spotted often playing opposite Rob Ninkovich as an end-of-the-line pass-rusher during OTAs and minicamp this spring. He has experience playing off-the-line as well, but seemed to be more of a fill-in option in that role last season. 

Jonathan Freeny, 6-foot-2, 255 pounds: Freeny saw 453 defensive snaps in 2015, which was more than any other Patriots linebacker after Hightower and Collins. He spent most of 2016 on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, but returned to participate in practices this spring -- albeit while wearing a red non-contact jersey. An experienced special-teamer, Freeny could be one of the team's top linebackers in the kicking game if healthy. He signed a two-year extension with the Patriots last August. 

Harvey Langi, 6-foot-2, 252 pounds: The Patriots signed Langi to an undrafted free agent deal that reportedly guaranteed him $115,000 -- more money than any other undrafted rookie in this year's class. He played both as an edge defender and off the line at BYU and may need to prove to the team that he has value in the kicking game in order to make the roster. Fellow undrafted rookie 'backer Brooks Ellis and 2016 practice-squadder Trevor Bates seem to fall into a similar category. 

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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