The Patriots have a need smack dab in the middle of their defense and they might be able to address it with one of their first selections in this year's draft.
The linebacker level could use an upgrade, and based on some of the players the Patriots have been watching closely during the pre-draft process, they feel the same way.
Typically the Patriots look for good size, sound instincts and solid production at the collegiate level when they look for rookie 'backers. If you have special teams experience or you saw time in the SEC . . . even better.
We rolled through several linebacker names who could fit with the Patriots in our "Linebacker Lowdown" series, and we'll include many of those on this list as well. But there are a few new names worth mentioning before Thursday night so let's get to it.
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PROTOTYPES IN RANGE
ROQUAN SMITH, GEORGIA, 6-1, 236 POUNDS
Smith is only in range if the Patriots are willing to package together multiple picks to move up into the top 10. An outstanding athlete, who diagnoses quickly and can both cover and rush? Oh, and he dominated in the SEC? Smith sounds like Bill Belichick's kind of guy. Click here for the "Linebacker Lowdown" piece on Smith. He's smaller than what Belichick typically likes, which might prevent the Patriots from trading up for him, but he's a player.
TREMAINE EDMUNDS, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-5, 253 POUNDS
One NFC assistant noted that Edmunds didn't flash much "nasty" on tape for the Hokies. Even at his size, he doesn't always use it to overpower opponents. But at 19 years old, and as one of the best athletes in the draft, he could be molded to perform multiple front-seven duties. He was compared by one evaluator to a more physically-impressive version of Jamie Collins. As with Smith, the Patriots would have to move up for Edmunds.
LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH, BOISE STATE, 6-4, 256 POUNDS
On paper, Vander Esch is one of the best fits for the Patriots because of his size and athleticism. He tore up the combine, and in one year as a starter, he proved he could be very productive against the run as well as cover. He's a do-it-all, three-down type . . . and he should be getting better. Vander Esch reportedly visited New England late in the pre-draft process.
RASHAAN EVANS, ALABAMA 6-3, 232 POUNDS
Another tremendous fit based on Belichick's draft history. The 'Bama connection may make Evans even better-suited for life in New England. For me, it's a simple question of what you're looking for? Evans is an explosive athlete -- even though he didn't test like one, possibly due to injury -- who is a demon in the run game. He's also an adept pass-rusher through the A-gaps or even off the edge. Before he played off the line, he was an outside linebacker for Nick Saban. If the Patriots want a smaller version of Dont'a Hightower (in terms of his position flexibility), Evans could be the guy. More on him here.
LORENZO CARTER, GEORGIA, 6-5, 250 POUNDS
Carter was a versatile defender in the SEC who played both off the edge and in coverage. Sound like a Patriots fit yet? What if I told you he also happened to be one of the freakiest athletes in the draft class (4.5-second 40) with long arms? The only reason the Patriots may hesitate is that, despite Carter's physical gifts and impressive football IQ, he didn't dominate as a collegian. Was that an effort issue? If the Patriots are comfortable with his approach after studying up on him, they could pounce in the late first round or early second. He could be the "Will" linebacker of the future in New England.
FRED WARNER, BYU, 6-3, 236 POUNDS
Warner was described to me by one assistant as an ideal fit for the Patriots. His athleticism is certainly NFL-caliber, but he it's his position versatility that puts him over the edge. He was in coverage for a significant number of snaps in college, and when he went to the Senior Bowl and played more of a traditional "Will" linebacker role, he opened eyes. Special teams could also be in his future. He could be a Patriot as early as the late second round.
OREN BURKS, VANDERBILT, 6-3, 233 POUNDS
Leadership? Time in the SEC, and playing for a program Belichick appreciates? Top-notch athleticism (6.82-second three-cone, 131-inch broad jump)? Varied experience on defense, having played safety and multiple linebacker roles? What part of Burks' game won't the Patriots like? He may be a bit raw in terms of the winding road his career has taken, going from one position to the next. But otherwise? He feels like a Patriots Day 3 target.
JOSEY JEWELL, IOWA, 6-1, 235 POUNDS
Jewell is a very different player compared to the one who precedes him on this list. Jewell is a middle linebacker. He's also relatively slow, and his special-teams value may be nil. But Jewell may be one of the smartest linebackers, if not the smartest, in the class. How far will that get him? He could be worth a third-round choice if the Patriots feel they need a ready-to-go field general.
JACK CICHY, WISCONSIN, 6-2, 238 POUNDS
Another marginally-athletic but instinctive linebacker with what are considered strong leadership skills, Cichy could be a Patriots fit on Day 3. He'll have to be medically cleared -- he missed Wisconsin's last 20 games with injuries -- but what he does to disrupt plays in tight spaces has definite value. He also has some special-teams experience, giving him another avenue to an NFL roster.
MALIK JEFFERSON, TEXAS, 6-3, 236 POUNDS
Jefferson's combination of size and athleticism could get him drafted early on Day 2. His tape might not suggest that he's worthy of that type of selection -- he just doesn't have that much experience in coverage to project as a seamless three-down fit in today's NFL -- but coaches will salivate over his power and movement skills (4.52-second 40, 36-inch vertical).
MIKE McCRAY, MICHIGAN, 6-4, 243 POUNDS
In an era when the linebackers are getting smaller and more athletic, McCray is a bit of a throwback. That could mean the Patriots are interested. He's not the rangiest second-level defender, far from it, but if the Patriots are looking to play more 3-4 looks under Belichick and Brian Flores, McCray could fit the profile. He's a Day 3 choice, in all likelihood.
JEROME BAKER, OHIO STATE, 6-1, 229 POUNDS
Is Baker still an ascending player who can build up his body and his feel for the game to complement his natural athleticism? Or is he what he's going to be? If it's the latter, there's a role for him on special teams and perhaps as a 4-3 "Will" linebacker. But if the Patriots are looking for more of an all-purpose option, someone who can play on first and second down, they may turn elsewhere.
SKAI MOORE, SOUTH CAROLINA, 6-2, 226 POUNDS
Moore is one of the most instinctive linebackers in the class, and those instincts led to an extremely high level of production -- both in the running game (led the team in tackles for four years) and passing game (seven picks in the last two seasons). Injury concerns and some off-the-field issues while at South Carolina might knock him down the board, but Belichick personally spent time with Moore at the South Carolina pro day.
DORIAN O'DANIEL, CLEMSON, 6-1, 223 POUNDS
Another undersized linebacker whose athleticism could catch Belichick's attention (4.61-second 40, 6.64-second three-cone), O'Daniel has extensive special-teams experience. If he's there in the later rounds, he could be worth a shot.
SHAUN DION HAMILTON, ALABAMA, 6-0, 233 POUNDS
If it's a stouter (albeit less athletic) linebacker the Patriots are after, there's another prospect who played for Saban who could be of interest. Hamilton was his high school's valedictorian, and he was the primary signal-caller for the Crimson Tide over the previous two years. He's projected to be a late-round pick after suffering knee injuries that ended each of his last two seasons prematurely. If he checks out medically, maybe Belichick feels like there's value there.
CHRIS WORLEY, OHIO STATE, 6-2, 230 POUNDS
Coming out of Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano's defense, Worley's transition to the NFL -- in terms of his understanding of schemes -- should be a relatively smooth one. To have a shot at getting drafted by the Patriots, they'll have to fall in love with his work in the kicking game. According to Pro Football Focus, Worley played 172 special-teams snaps in the last two seasons.
TEGRAY SCALES, INDIANA, 6-0, 230 POUNDS
Scales isn't an eyebrow-raising athlete (4.77 seconds), and he's a bit undersized, but he was extremely productive for the Hoosiers. He had six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a middle-of-the-field linebacker last season, and for his career he had eight picks. Add in the fact that Scales seems like a special-teams fit at the next level, and he could be a Day 3 pick.
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