When the Patriots dealt Jamie Collins to the Browns, the assumption was that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia would take a Frankenstein's monster approach to replacing the 2015 Pro Bowler. Tapping into their depth at linebacker, it seemed as though they could utilize the skill sets of multiple players to try to make up for what they lost in Collins.
Yet in their first game with Collins out, a Sunday night matchup with the Seahawks, the Patriots instead leaned heavily upon rookie sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts. After watching Seattle running back CJ Prosise go off for seven catches and 87 yards, the Patriots featured a many-hands-make-light-work approach against the 49ers.
Shea McClellin (36 snaps) and Kyle Van Noy (29) served as the two top options at linebacker alongside the clear-cut leader of the unit Dont'a Hightower (48). McClellin got the start in an off-the-ball role, and Van Noy saw the majority of his work in obvious passing situations. Making his Patriots debut after being dealt to the team from the Lions last month, Van Noy registered one of the team's five sacks, he recorded another quarterback pressure, and he had one run-stuff.
"Yeah it looked like he helped us a little bit," Belichick said of Van Noy after the game. "We'll see how it goes on the film, but he has some versatility for us. Can rush, cover. I thought he and Shea both -- it was kind of Shea's first playing time off the line of scrimmage -- both those guys gave is a lot of snaps.
"I think there were some things that were OK. I'm sure there are some things that we can improve on. We'll see how that looks, but it was good to have all of those guys in there. We used Elandon. We got some play out of all of our linebackers."
Roberts saw 12 snaps on the afternoon and allowed three catches on three targets for 44 yards. He was in coverage on Shaughn Draughn for Draughn's garbage-time score in the fourth quarter. He also had difficulty in trying to corral Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick during his longest run of the day, a 17-yard scramble across the middle of the field.
How the Patriots utilize their linebacking corps moving forward should be interesting to track.
Roberts has shown proficiency in the running game, though eye-opening plays he made earlier this season have been fewer and father between since the bye. Can he re-capture a role on early downs?
Van Noy showed some burst as a pass-rusher in Santa Clara, which is how many saw him earning his place in the league coming out of BYU. He was most often deployed as an off-the-ball linebacker in Detroit, but might he benefit from a role that focused more on getting after quarterbacks?
McClellin has been primarily an end-of-the-line player since coming to New England, but clearly the coaching staff trusts him to understand his assignments when moved to the middle of the field.
Hightower will be the staple in the middle as long as he's healthy -- "Dont'a is one of our best players," Belichick said when asked about a stretch early in the game when Hightower came off the field -- but who fills in alongside seems very much in the air and dependent on the situation.