Kyle Van Noy

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.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED

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.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018

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

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED

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.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY

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.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT

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.

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT

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. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

MINNEAPOLIS -- Through three episodes of the Facebook project "Tom vs. Time" that tracks Tom Brady's work and life off the field, one of the more fascinating scenes involves Brady picking through thick binders filled with notes and plans from individual seasons. Inside the 2016 binder, he pulled a sheet of paper from the point last season when the Patriots were preparing to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick, and Cris Collinsworth break down match-ups to look for on Sunday

"This is a lot of stuff that [Bill] Belichick talks about in team meetings that I write down," Brady told the camera. "These are kind of his themes. I'll read you some of them: 'Prepare and play well. The Super Bowl environment is all about hype and ridiculous bull**** that goes on.' "

He would know. He's been through enough of these.

The media crush is obviously different during Super Bowl week. Players are aware of it. The vast majority know how to handle it. Still, Patriots were asked on Tuesday how they deal with the chaotic media availability sessions and all the attention.

MORE OF WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Eagles weigh in: Belichick-or-Brady?

"You just kind of tune it out," James White said. "You come in here to win a football game. There's all this hype around this game. Biggest game of the year and whatnot. But we can't overhype it. It's still football at the end of the day. You want to go out and put your best foot forward, have fun, and just do what you've been doing all year long."

Many Patriots continue to live by the credo "ignore the noise," and Nate Solder, who is headed to his fourth Super Bowl, counts himself among those.

"That was established by the coaches and things, but that's helped me certainly because all this other stuff, it's just white noise," Solder said. "It's just gonna take away from the true reason that we're here, and that's to win a game."

MORE PATRIOTS: Disobeying the sitter to watch Brady

"We deal with media all week during the regular week," added David Andrews. "It's not like something we deal with once a year at this time of year. But everything now is on a bigger scale. The game is obviously on a bigger scale. There's more production, things like that. We just kind of handle that. Move forward. It's gonna be good to get back here, rolling, and preparing for Philly."

The Patriots will have their first practice of the week on Wednesday. They'll do their best to fall into their routine, as they have for the first few days of their stay here, despite living in a hotel attached to a gargantuan mall.

"You can still stick to your routine," White said. "I think our staff does a great job of trying to get everything we have at our facility at the hotel so you can do the same exact things you've done before."

Here are some of the other things the Patriots were saying on Tuesday . . .

Brady on "centering himself" and meditation: "It can be challenging. Obviously my mind races a lot. There are a lot of things that I'm thinking about. For me, I've learned the car ride home is a great
time, 30 minutes of time, where I can listen to music and find a good space for me to be in for the day. Whether that's driving into work in the morning, or I can think about things I need to do, I want to do. And leaving practice, after you've expended a lot of energy, to find a good balance to deal with things at home."

Brady on the potential of getting hit by former teammate Chris Long: "I hope he doesn't hit me too hard if he gets a shot. Hopefully he respects his elders a little bit out there . . . I really enjoyed my
time with Chris. He's a helluva player and he made huge plays for us last year. He's made some great plays for the Eagles this year. They have a dominant pass rush on both edges, right up the middle, and he's a big part of that. He's a great leader, practices his butt off, great enthusiasm. I have a ton of respect for him."

Kyle Van Noy on how comforting it is to know Patriots safeties are backing him up: "It's nice. [Patrick] Chung is a Swiss Army knife. [Duron Harmon] is the sniper in the back. And [Devin McCourty] is the clean-up. I would hope no one takes them for granted because all three are phenomenal players. They deserve a lot of credit for the success of the Patriots defense of late, and they deserve a lot of credit."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Pats-Bills inactives: Hogan, White, Van Noy all out

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Pats-Bills inactives: Hogan, White, Van Noy all out

FOXBORO -- Nate Solder was a late addition to the Patriots injury report, listed as questionable with an illness on Saturday night, but he'll be in uniform against the Bills on Christmas Eve. 

With Solder expected to man the left edge, look for the Patriots to go with LaAdrian Waddle on the right side and Cameron Fleming to serve as the swing tackle. The Patriots regulars on the interior offensive line, which helped open up room for backs to run for nearly 200 yards the last time these two teams met, are healthy and ready to go. 

Chris Hogan will miss his second consecutive week with a shoulder injury after playing a starter's workload in Miami two weeks ago. That could mean more action for Kenny Britt, who will be in uniform for the second time after signing with the Patriots less than two weeks ago. 

The Patriots will also be forced to go without sub back James White and multi-purpose back Rex Burkhead, meaning the rotation of runners will be short against Buffalo's run defense. Mike Gillislee -- a healthy scratch since the bye week -- will be in uniform and ready to go. He could be a factor on first down and by the goal line. How the Patriots use Dion Lewis will be fascinating. He's been their best runner this season, but the team may want to manage him somewhat if possible to ensure that he's ready for postseason play. Will he serve as a sub back? Will he remain heavily used on first down? We'll see. 

Without Kyle Van Noy for the third consecutive week., New England's front seven will have its hands full. They were soft on the edges in Orchard Park in Week 13 and will need help from Trey Flowers (who did not play in the first meeting between these clubs), Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee against LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor. 

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
DL Alan Branch
RB Rex Burkhead
OL Cole Croston
WR Chris Hogan
LB Trevor Reilly
LB Kyle Van Noy
RB James White

BUFFALO BILLS
CB Breon Borders
TE EJ Gaines
WR Andre Holmes
OT Conor McDermott
OF John Miller
WR Brandon Reilly
TE Logan Thomas