David Harris

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

Pats linebacker group needs serious improvements

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.




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.


Van Noy, Harris, Roberts, Grigsby, Hightower, McClellin.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


#FridayBag: Farewell, Jimmy G Edition

#FridayBag: Farewell, Jimmy G Edition

Each week, Tom E. Curran, Phil Perry and Mike Giardi take your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or #FridayBag as it’s come to be known. Giardi takes a bye during this bye week, but Curran and Perry aren’t sitting this one out. 

Got a question for the trio? Tweet it using the hashtag #FridayBag and they’ll do their best to answer it. On to this week’s edition:

TC: They wouldn’t have gotten anything. Every team would have known that Garoppolo was headed for free agency in early March. Why pay for something you can bid on later. It’s not a terrible question and maybe the Patriots could have gotten that second-rounder in February but that’s not a dice-roll worth playing, in my opinion.

TC: I don’t know where I’ve made Bill Belichick “look like a genius” in this. The Patriots had a bad hand. If they traded Garoppolo in the spring and Brady got hurt or dipped, they’d have been screwed. If they trade him now, they get a diminished return and kept him around as insurance they didn’t really need. If they auctioned him around the league, maybe they’d have gotten more but my sense on that is Belichick WANTS to see Garoppolo do well and felt he owed it to him to put him in a decent spot. Additionally, he didn’t want the attention that a “FOR SALE” sign hung on Jimmy would have attracted so he quietly sent him to SF. If they franchised him, they would have been on the hook for $25 million if/when Garoppolo signed the thing and the roster would have to be revamped in order to keep a trade chip when a QB-loaded draft was approaching. They have a bad hand because they were smart enough to draft Garoppolo and do a great job developing him but they were even smarter 18 years ago when they drafted Brady. You pay car insurance, right? If you don’t get in a crash by the time the year runs out, did you get fleeced? I mean, think of all the money you spent. Same thing.

TC: That was the perfect way to split the baby. Jimmy hates the cold though. It was a no-go.

TC: Hey Jeff, I would venture there was thought. But the level at which Brady is playing, the stickiness of trading the greatest quarterback ever while he’s still putting up numbers and the fact this team is still competing for a Super Bowl annually meant it never rose to the level of “serious thought.” Brady’s dip has been too slow in coming for the team to contemplate moving on to a promising but unknown quantity. 

PP: The Patriots are in need of defensive tackles at the moment so Vincent Valentine would be a nice addition if and when he's able to return off of IR. He is sticking around the Foxboro area during the bye week as he continues to rehab. If he returns, that might mean fewer reps for players like Lawrence Guy or Malcom Brown, who've been used extensively through the first half of the season. Valentine's presence may also allow someone like Deatrich Wise, who has played inside occasionally, to spend more time on the edge. 

As far as McClellin goes, who he replaces will depend on how the Patriots use him. If he's viewed as an additional edge piece, maybe he sees some of Cassius Marsh's workload. If he's going to play off the line, David Harris could see his recent bump in play slide back down. 

PP: It's already evolving, Steve! Bill Belichick acknowledged that because his team is thin on the defensive line, they used their linebackers to supplement that group against the Chargers. That meant more linebackers getting up the field and into the line of scrimmage. We'll have a piece on the creativity in the front-seven hitting NBCSportsBoston.com this weekend. It's interesting stuff, and it'll take you back to 2014. 

Now, just to get to all the specific players you mention . . . here are my takes, quickly: Kyle Van Noy has taken on the Hightower role as hybrid end/'backer, it seems; McClellin's return may allow him to play a similar role and could cut into some of the workloads that players such as David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly have seen lately; Valentine isn't guaranteed to return, remember, since he's continuing to rehab and since the Patriots could opt to bring back Malcolm Mitchell instead. That hasn't been ruled out. Teams are only allowed to bring two players back off of IR, and McClellin should be the first. 

PP: It's close. Brady was 22 and (about) eight months old when he was drafted. He would have to play through his 44-year-old season (2021) to earn the "majority of my life in the NFL" thing. Pretty impressive considering quarterbacks between 2008 and 2014 had an average career length of less than three years, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

PP: Maybe, Mason, but I don't think so. The motivation will be there for Brady as long as he knows they're looking for the next guy. Which they are. The decision to draft Garoppolo was the just the air horn signaling the search was real.

PP: Real funny, Giardi! Just kidding. Of course, it's not him. His handle is @IllmissyouforeverJimJim10. Poor fella. First pick? I'd say the Browns get it for the second straight year. Just can't see them winning more than a couple by season's end. Think the Niners have the ability to win two or three, especially since their schedule includes the one-win Giants and the Watson-less, Watt-less, Mercilus-less Texans. 

PP: If there were, now would be the time to fill them. The bye week could be a valuable catch-up period, and so the fact that none of these are already in-house makes me think they won't be. 

PP: Yes. And keep an eye on the 2019 class while you're at it, Chris.



For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

FOXBORO -- How many times have you heard the Patriots utter the phrase “Next Man Up”? So often that -- if  you’re like me -- you’ve become numb to it. Besides, isn’t that what the sport is all about? There's going to be attrition. It’s a league-wide thing. It has to be.

But unlike other franchises, which come unglued at the first sign of adversity, the Pats have managed not only to get by but often thrive. 


The most recent example came Sunday, a 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The previous week against Atlanta, the Pats' defense had finally played like we believed they were capable . . . but then lost their most impactful player, Dont’a Hightower, during that game to a torn pec muscle that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Yet this unit, not only without Hightower but also starters Malcom Brown, Stephon Gilmore and nickel corner Eric Rowe, limited Philip Rivers to 212 yards passing. How is that possible?

“I think it starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, his leadership, the way he’s coaches,” said Matthew Slater. “The way he’s prepared every man on this roster -- from Tom Brady to the last guy on this practice squad  -- everyone is prepared the same way. The expectation, the bar, is the same for everyone and it’s like that every single day. So when you get into a situation where a guy’s number is called, it’s not new to him. It’s not totally foreign. Yes, he’s asked to do something a little bit different, but Coach and his staff have done the best  they can to try and prepare guys for those situations.”

“It’s not foreign to us,” said Duron Harmon. “We’ve been down a lot of players since I’ve been here. [Rob Gronkowski] went down, [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork] . . . guys who are good players, players we lean on. But year in and year out, we find guys who just step up and do what they need to do: Just be consistent and play good football for us.”

Rex Burkhead is relatively new to this organization, coming over during the free-agency period last offseason. But as the son of a coach, he recognizes the attention to detail and what it translates to, not just for the first guy on the roster but the last as well.

“Lots of preparation here from the mental side, the physical side,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it . . . I think it’s kudos to our coaching staff for getting that next guy prepared. That’s the mentality that’s been here in the past and they prove that when those guys gets a chance, they do well.”

Burkhead recalls numerous times being quizzed by Belichick or another coach as you go from one meeting room to the next, or veer off toward the weight room. That’s nothing new in Foxboro but it’s not like that everywhere else. Certainly not in Cincinnati, where Burkhead was for the first four years of his career.

When you talk to players from different organizations, you truly understand how different that part of the equation is. One newer Patriot told me “it’s so [bleeping] stressful” and it “makes you hate them at times.” But “at the end of the day, they’re making sure you’re on your toes. That you’re involved. You can’t argue with it. Those Lombardi Trophies say it all.”

So Belichick and his staff get rave reviews for making the “Next Man Up” mantra not only a thing, but a thing that works. However, this isn’t just about the big brains in the corner offices. This is about the players buying in.

That’s not always easy; consider the egos involved. Yet from the top of the roster down to the bottom, the Pats usually get full commitment across the board.

“You know a guy like Tom [Brady] makes guys like myself, or guys that don’t play a ton of receiver, feel involved,” said Slater. “A guy like Devin McCourty making the practice squad safety feel like he’s involved. I think there’s a great deal of player leadership.”

Part of that leadership was lost, though, when Hightower was forced out of the lineup. The Pats had to lean on the erratic Elandon Roberts and a slowed veteran like David Harris and put even more on Kyle Van Noy’s plate. That’s less than ideal, but what else can you do?

“It’s hard, but you have to,” said Harmon. “No one is going to give us the production that [Hightower] did because no one is the player that High is. High is a special player, a special talent player. But you can’t sit here and harp on it. We have to find ways to get production that he [gave the Patriots] out of different people, whether it’s one person doing all his jobs or different guys coming together to do what he did. Maybe it’s three or four guys. It sucks we lost him, but worrying about that isn’t going to help us win games. It has to be the next man up. It has to be that mentality because it’s going to make sure that everybody has confidence in each other going out there and playing good ball.”

It sounds easy, but the reality is it’s far from easy. Johnson Bademosi isn’t suppose to find out shortly before a game against the Jets that he’s not just going to be a special teamer, but he’ll be the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler and never come off the damn field. But when Gilmore’s concussion symptoms popped up late in the week, or early in the weekend, Bademosi got the call and he responded like he had been there and done that before. Why?

“I would say trust, and you build that trust through practice,” noted Harmon. “I would say Bademosi is the perfect example. Him getting ready for the Jets game. He didn’t know he was going to play all week until Friday or Saturday morning, but for him to be in the meetings, asking questions -- even when he wasn’t starting -- then in practice, playing good football and being consistent when he was thrown in . . . that’s how you build trust. That’s everybody here. Everybody wants to win. Everybody knows how important winning is to us in here. So everybody on this whole roster goes out each and every day and tries his hardest just to not let the team down.”

“Certainly, I think on an individual by individual basis, you have to take a lot of pride in being a professional and understanding [that] I may have this role but I could get called into [a different] role, so I have to prepare myself for all of these roles,” added Slater. “And I think when you get guys that are professional and you get guys that are dedicated to their craft, guys that are invested in the concept of team and doing what’s best for the team . . . when you get in those situations, you have confidence in those guys.”

That confidence is earned in Foxboro and makes the “Next Man Up” a part of this organization’s DNA. Without it, injuries like the one to Hightower or to Julian Edelman could derail a season long before the playoffs roll around. But not here. No how. No way. It’s just not allowed, from top to bottom.