The Patriots went into the new league year with a handful of obvious needs, addressing most by either re-signing their own free agents, bringing aboard new faces or making trades. Investments were made at cornerback, edge defender, defensive tackle and running back. Even at offensive tackle, where the Patriots lost Nate Solder, the team re-signed one of its own (LaAdrian Waddle) and came to terms with another (Matt Tobin). If you were looking for the Patriots to add a linebacker to last year's group, though, you're still waiting. This week we'll try to pin down some good fits for the second level of Bill Belichick's defense in this year's draft class. After looking at four potential Day 1 prospects, today we're looking at two very different athletes who could go on Day 2.
Not everyone Bill Belichick drafts can be the queen piece on the chess board.
Take Dont'a Hightower, who week to week could find himself in different roles that highlight his versatile skill set. He's among his coach's favorites because of the freedom and malleability he provides when it comes to game-planning.
Would it be nice for Belichick to have a linebacker room filled with players who can play on the edge one week, then shift back to the middle of the field and serve as signal-caller the next? Of course. Kyle Van Noy found himself used in that fashion after Hightower's season-ending injury last fall, but generally speaking, those types are hard to find.
For everyone else, there's loads of value in playing one role and playing it well.
If the Patriots pass on a linebacker in the first round and go hunting for one with one of their three Day 2 picks, they'll likely be looking at a player who will have to fit a clearly-defined position, whether it's as a "Mike" linebacker, an off-the-line athlete, or a long and explosive edge defender.
Here, we'll focus in on two prospects who might not be viewed as Swiss Army Knives but still have the potential to be extremely effective at different spots in the Patriots defense: Georgia's Lorenzo Carter and Iowa's Josey Jewell.
After some discussion with NFL evaluators who have a close eye on this year's linebacker class, here are some of the strengths and weaknesses of both players and how they might fit in New England...
LORENZO CARTER, GEORGIA
Tale of the tape: 6-6; 250 pounds; 34-inch arms
Calling on the combine: 4.50-second 40; 36.0-inch vertical; 10-foot-10 broad
Strengths: Carter is an elite athlete for his size. His vertical and broad jump numbers indicate he's one of the most explosive front-seven players in this year's draft, and his speed is rare. Putting that athleticism to use for the Bulldogs, Carter was used extensively as a pass-rusher and run-defender off the edge where his flexibility and his ability to sink his hips flashed on tape. But he also saw extensive reps in coverage, at times moving out to the slot to help defend spread attacks. In space, his length and speed allow him to cover tons of ground, which shows up when he chases plays down from behind or ranges from the hash to the boundary. He moves well enough that he could be drafted to play as a "Will" linebacker, according to one evaluator. One of the best performances of Carter's career came last season against a very talented Notre Dame offensive line.
Weaknesses: Carter leaves Georgia with a bit of an odd legacy. He was a physical specimen in one of the most athletic fronts in the country, and he helped the Bulldogs win the Liberty Bowl game in 2016 with two forced fumbles . . . But he was expected to do great things throughout his career after arriving as a five-star recruit, and he never became a consistently dominant force. One NFC evaluator wondered why -- if he's smart, freakishly athletic, and was surrounded by good talent in college -- he didn't produce more consistently. Because Carter has so been blessed physically, is he accustomed to having to fight for playing time? That fight is coming at the next level, where "five-star" talents abound. Good young players at Georgia started to cut into some of Carter's reps late last year.
Patriots fit: There's a well-worn phrase at Gillette Stadium when talking about players like Carter: "These guys don't grow on trees." You simply can't find many athletes with the length and explosiveness that Carter possesses. It gives him the kind of upside that may force some teams -- perhaps the Patriots at No. 31? -- to consider using a first-round pick on him just to see if he can be molded. Carter seems best-suited for a "Sam" or "Jack" role in a 3-4 who can get after the passer but also drop into the flat. He showed promise out in space as a collegian, and for a creative coaching staff, he could see some time off the line. He's clearly smart enough to handle NFL coaching, he's fast enough to run and chase with the athletes he'll see on Sundays, and there are times when he looks fluid enough in his drops to handle some coverage responsibilities as a pro. In the Patriots defense, it might make some sense to experiment with him as a "Will." Or maybe the left end spot vacated by Rob Ninkovich last summer could be a fit. With Derek Rivers and Dont'a Hightower both coming back off of season-ending injuries, and with Adrian Clayborn almost strictly a right-edge option, having an athlete like Carter to align on the left certainly wouldn't hurt. The only question when it comes to Carter, who underachieved with the Bulldogs despite his gifts, is how important is football to him?
JOSEY JEWELL, IOWA
Tale of the tape: 6-1, 235; 32-inch arms
Calling on the combine: 4.82-second 40-yard dash; 33-inch vertical; 9-foot-9 broad; 6.8-second three-cone; 4.27-second short shuttle; 11.52-second long shuttle
Strengths: Jewell had big-time production over the course of his three years as a full-time starter. As a sophomore, he was second-team all-conference. As a junior, he was Iowa's team MVP and a finalist for the Butkus Award as the country's best linebacker. Last season he was named a first-team AP All-American and first-team all-conference after recording 134 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two picks, 11 pass breakups and a forced fumble. How'd he rack up all of those accolades with such an unremarkable frame? He diagnosed quickly and was aggressive in finishing off ball-carriers. In the run game, he's instinctive, and he's not afraid to mix it up with bigger bodies hoping to move him. In coverage, his feel for the game helps him jump passing lanes and he has a knack for getting his mitts on the football. What he lacks in straight-line speed, he makes up for with anticipation. Per Pro Football Focus, he didn't allow a passing touchdown in 55 targets sent his way in 2017 -- more targets without a touchdown than any other linebacker in college football.
Weaknesses: How teams view Jewell's athleticism will determine if he's taken late on Day 2 or early on Day 3. Evaluators appreciate his instincts and his motor, but his speed won't be up to snuff for some teams, meaning their appreciation for his football IQ will only go so far. It's interesting that many have knocked Jewell's short-area quickness since he put up one of the best three-cone times among those at his position at the combine. There is, however, a lack of explosiveness and strength that shows up on tape that is concerning for defensive coaches. Jewell's length could also end up being an issue since there will be instances when he's eaten up by linemen bearing down on him at the second level. Because of his athletic deficiencies, he may not be viewed as a special-teamer, which might mean he's either a starting "Mike" linebacker or inactive week after week.
Patriots fit: Jewell isn't going to be one of those movable front-seven pieces for Belichick if the pair ends up working together in Foxboro. He's an off-the-ball player, who looks like he'd best fit as a "Mike" in a 4-3. He's extremely bright, and his instincts are good enough in the passing game that the Patriots could feel comfortable dropping Jewell into zone coverage. In that role, he'd also have enough help up front to stay clean from blockers in the run game, which should complement his diagnosing and tackling skills. If he's the "Mike" or "Will" in a 3-4, the Patriots would have to be accepting of the fact that his length and lack of explosiveness will put him in tough spots against bigger blockers one-on-one. Jewell has enough experience running things in the middle of a defense, and enough coaching from Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, that Belichick and Brian Flores wouldn't have to worry about the rookie's football IQ . . . but they might find it hard to trust him on third down because of his speed. If the Patriots' third-round pick (No. 95 overall) is approaching and they still haven't dipped into the linebacker waters, Jewell would be worth a look.