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. 

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Is it time for Patriots to find The Next Guy?

Is it time for Patriots to find The Next Guy?

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 tackling the position that just might make this the most important draft season in Patriots history: Quarterback.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Tom Brady was the NFL MVP for the third time and his play at 40 years old might just give the Patriots the leeway to wait another year to draft The Next Guy. The argument could be made - and should be made, in my opinion - that the Patriots need to draft a quarterback this spring. But given the way Brady looked, if the right player isn't there this time around, the Patriots could wait until next year and they'd still probably be OK at the most important position at the roster. Despite taking a beating early in the season, and despite battling through a variety of injuries throughout the season, Brady led the league in passing yardage and was third when it came to QB rating. He was fifth in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt. He's said before he'll retire when he sucks. He's a long way off. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?


Brady, Brian Hoyer

 

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

 


The severity of the need all depends on the window of time you're looking at. Do they need a quarterback tomorrow? Of course not. But don't kid yourself. They need one. And soon. If the Patriots can figure out a way to get Nate Solder back in the fold, adding a promising young player at this spot should shoot to the top of the offseason's to do list. Even without Solder, because of the importance of the QB position, the Patriots may believe finding Brady's eventual successor is the key to the offseason. Drafting a quarterback in the first round this season would give the Patriots a passer under contract through 2022. Brady will turn 45 years old that summer.

 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?

 


Man, is it going to be fun to talk about this position this offseason. Things got weird when Washington traded for Alex Smith and handed him a long-term extension with the former Niners and Chiefs QB. That means Kirk Cousins would certainly be on his way to a new city in a matter of months. And things should only get weirder from there. All three Vikings quarterbacks -- Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater -- are scheduled to hit free agency. Nick Foles is under contract in Philly but could be made available in a trade. Drew Brees, meanwhile, is scheduled to become a free agent as well. What's it all mean for the Patriots? They probably won't be interested in veteran passers, but where the above names land will alter the league-wide landscape when it comes to draft weekend. And because this is expected to be one of the deepest quarterback drafts in years, the Patriots could benefit if, after all the movement, a talented rookie signal-caller ends up falling into their laps. 

 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

 


Where to start? Want the most statistically accomplished quarterback in the history of college football? Someone with big-time leadership skills and an outsized (at times abrasive) personality to match? That's Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. USC's Sam Darnold may have the highest ceiling of any passer in this class. UCLA's Josh Rosen throws a pretty ball but there are questions as to how he'll move at the next level. Wyoming's Josh Allen looks like he was built in a quarterback lab, but his accuracy is all over the map. Louisville's Lamar Jackson is the most talented runner at the position since Michael Vick, but his mechanics could use some cleaning up, and he'll need the right scheme in order to succeed. All of those players could be gone in the first round. And four of those six could be gone in the top six picks. If you're the Patriots, that might be OK. Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, Washington State's Luke Falk, Western Kentucky's Mike White and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta could be available on Day 2 and may represent good value in the eyes of Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio. 

 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?

 


This just might be the most important draft in Patriots history. It’s bigger than 1993, I think, back when the choice was Drew Bledsoe or Rick Mirer. The Patriots couldn't screw that one up. But that was about becoming competitive. Every decision the Patriots make now is about trying to extend their unparalleled run. Without the No. 1 overall pick, the current challenge is greater. It's certainly greater than it was back in 2014, when they drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round. Back then, they knew they had some breathing room to develop Brady's successor. Now, even though Brady just won the MVP, that window has been minimized. The team can’t bank on Brady making it to 45. The choice has to be to make a contingency plan, and to make it quickly, with a young player who the team believes has the intelligence, the arm and the leadership to be The Next Guy. He'll also need the requisite poise not to be shaken when he’s dubbed The Next Guy. Lump all of those things together, and that player will be hard to find - even in a loaded quarterback class - so how do the Patriots make sure they get him? Use a first-round pick, if they have to. Trade up, if they have to. The Patriots may be certain their man will slip to the second. Maybe they’ll be confident they can actually draft the next Garoppolo with the pick they received in exchange for Garoppolo months ago. But because the future of the most important position on their roster is so tightly bound to the health of a 40-year-old, it feels like they really can't afford to wait around.

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Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

Stick with Lewis or handoff to someone else?

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 the guys who will (or won't) be running the football for the Patriots in 2018.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

 

HOW THEY PERFORMED


The running back position was one of the deepest and most consistent on the Patriots roster in 2017. The team's collection of backs, coached by Ivan Fears, were good enough that the player signed in the offseason to replace LeGarrette Blount ended up having a hard time finding the field. Mike Gillislee was a healthy scratch for the stretch run of the season, while Dion Lewis averaged 5.0 yards per carry and helped make the Patriots more of an unpredictable offense with his ability to both run out of heavy formations and align as a receiver when called upon. Lewis caught 32 passes for 214 yards, but the diminutive back was at his best as a runner. Per Pro Football Focus, he ranked fourth in the league in average yards after contact per carry (3.2) and fifth in forcing missed tackles as a runner. He made 42 tacklers miss, just two fewer than Le'Veon Bell in a whopping 141 fewer rushing attempts. James White didn't finish the season with the same kind of flare he did in 2016, but his 2017 regular season wasn't all that far off from the year prior in terms of his production. He had 60 catches for 551 yards in 2016 and 56 for 429 in 2017. Rex Burkhead was limited by injury throughout the course of the season but provided value as a rusher, receiver and special teamer. The Patriots ranked 10th in the league in rush yards per game (118.1) and 12th in yards per attempt (4.2) and were tied as the third-best team in the league in terms of protecting the football (four rushing fumbles, two lost). 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
White, Gillislee

WHO ISN'T?
Lewis, Burkhead, Brandon Bolden

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Right now, the position doesn't look all that different than it did in 2016, when the Patriots offense was the fourth-best team in the league in terms of yards and third-best in terms of points. They had their sub-back (White) and their hammer (Blount). If Gillislee can take on the Blount role, they'd have both roles covered once again. The Patriots, though, could use an all-purpose runner to add to the mix. After the 2016 campaign, the team wanted to become more unpredictable, and they found a better mix with a healthy Lewis and an occasionally-healthy Burkhead. Bringing one of those players back in 2018, or someone like them, would seem to be a priority this offseason. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The name topping everyone's list right now at this position this offseason is Bell's. One of the best dual-threat backs the league has seen in recent memory, he's going to be paid handsomely. Whether that's via the franchise tag (which he was given last season) or a long-term deal worth somewhere in the range of $11 million per year, he's not going to be on New England's radar in all likelihood. Others available? San Francisco's Carlos Hyde, Minnesota's Jerick McKinnon and Indy's Frank Gore are the best multi-purpose backs out there. Would the Patriots be willing to extend for someone like Hyde, who could argue he's worth somewhere in the range of $6 million per year, per Spotrac? 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


For the second consecutive year, it looks like the college ranks have churned out a fine running back class, with plenty of players who can do a little bit of everything. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is the cream of the crop and could be gone within the top five picks of the draft. LSU's Derrius Guice is more of a violent between-the-tackles runner and could hear his name called by the end of Day 1 or the start of Day 2. The next tier of backs could be the sweet spot for anyone looking for an every-down runner. USC's Ronald Jones, Georgia's Sony Michel, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and San Diego's State's Rashaad Penny may not be perfect prospects, but experts say all four have shown promise as potential three-down players.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?

As was the case with the tackle group, Bill Belichick's best option may be to go with what he had in 2017. If Lewis isn't blown away by another team's offer in free-agency, it'd make sense to try to bring him back. Should Lewis end up capitalizing on his last season elsewhere, Burkhead should offer the Patriots good value. Durability may be a concern, but the Patriots know what Burkhead's capable of, he understands the offense, and after missing six games last season, he won't be looking to break the bank. If neither of those familiar faces is interested in a return, McKinnon, 25, is an enticing option in free agency. He may be more receiver (51 catches last season) than a runner (150 carries), but he forced 39 total missed tackles on his 201 touches and had PFF's fifth-best running back grade in 2017. The 2014 combine standout would also provide some value as a kick-returning option; that was Lewis' gig last season. As far as the draft goes, Penny would be intriguing in the middle rounds because the SDSU offense used some the pro-style concepts -- the Aztecs leaned on the I-formation, for instance -- that would be thrown his way in Foxboro.

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