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 ones 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 two others (Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko). If you were looking for the Patriots to add a linebacker, 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, earlier we looked at top linebacker prospects Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds, and today, we're looking at Leighton Vander Esch and Rashaan Evans.
How exactly do the Patriots value the linebacker position? Ten years ago, they spent a top-10 pick on Jerod Mayo. Six years ago, they grabbed Dont'a Hightower with the No. 25 overall selection.
But things have changed, even since 2012. The passing game is more important than ever. Sub packages have become base packages, and linebackers have found themselves being replaced by slot corners and safeties more and more frequently.
You have to be fast. You have to be athletic. You have to be able to cover at the second level. You have to be able to run with backs and tight ends. This is the reality of the modern-day NFL.
Some may argue that, as a result, the linebacker spot has been devalued. Why pay through the nose for a linebacker if you're going to be using a defensive back 70 percent of the time instead?
The counter-argument to that point would be that if you can find a linebacker with the size to handle playing in the box and the ability to keep up in coverage, you've struck gold.
This year's linebacker draft class looks like a good one to mine. The top is loaded with gifted athletes, but there's also enough depth in the group that contributing players should be available in the later rounds.
Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia's Roquan Smith represent the future of the position. After acquiring pick No. 23 in trading wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams, there's a possibility the Patriots could trade up to get one of them. What's more likely, in my opinion, is that the Patriots end up with one of two linebackers who could slip to the end of Day 1 of the draft: Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama's Rashaan Evans.
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...
LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH, BOISE STATE
Tale of the tape: 6-4; 256 pounds; 34-inch arms
Calling on the combine: 4.65-second 40; 39.5-inch vertical; 10-foot-4 broad; 6.88-second three-cone; 4.15-second short shuttle
Strengths: Vander Esch is the kind of long, athletic prospect that has linebacker coaches giddy - especially since it looks as if he could conceivably add even more size to his frame once he gets on an NFL strength program. After just one season as a true every-down option, he's viewed as an ascending player who can play both the run and the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he had more run stuffs (tackles for a gain of two yards or fewer) than any other defender in the country last season. His motor is very good, and his instincts flashed on tape, particularly against Oregon, where he was consistently in the right place at the right time and making plays on the football.
Weaknesses: He looks more like a move tight end than a true downhill thumper so if he's asked to take on 320-pound guards at the next level, there could be growing pains, and his instincts as a pass-rusher don't match up with some of the other first-round options at the position this year. The other potential concern with Vander Esch is that he simply hasn't seen as much football as some of his counterparts in this class. One year as a starter -- and the relative lack of production that came in his limited opportunity -- could impact how teams view his preparedness for the NFL.
Patriots fit: For a team like Belichick's that likes to mix up its front-seven looks so often, Vander Esch seems like an ideal prospect. At the moment, he may not be the heat-seeking, run-stuffing missile that the Patriots have invested in before, and he may be best-suited to play off the line as a "Will" linebacker in a 4-3. But as Vander Esch gets stronger he could potentially handle duties on the strong side of offensive formations. I spoke to one evaluator who believed he could potentially be a capable "Mike" linebacker from a signal-calling standpoint. And if the Patriots wanted to use any Tampa-2 looks, Vander Esch is fluid enough to be able to drop into the deep middle of the field. If the Patriots want to play out of a 3-4, Vander Esch probably isn't an ideal off-the-ball type since he'd be asked to handle guards more often, but he seems long and athletic enough to play on the edge as a "Sam" or "Jack" linebacker. That wasn't his role in college, but if he takes to the coaching he'd get at One Patriot Place, he could tap into his athletic traits to play multiple roles up front.
RASHAAN EVANS, ALABAMA
Tale of the tape: 6-3, 232 pounds; 32-inch arms
Calling on the combine: 30-inch vertical; 9-foot-8 broad; 6.95-second three-cone; 4.36-second short shuttle
Strengths: Evans was very productive in arguably the nation's top conference, taking home second-team All-SEC honors last season after leading the Crimson Tide with 13 tackles for loss, and tying for the team lead with 74 tackles. He's a shade smaller than what the Patriots have traditionally sought in their linebackers, but he's exactly where the league is going at the position. His athleticism gives him good range when he's chasing backs from sideline to sideline, and he can blow up stretch run plays quickly if his closing speed isn't accounted for. His relentlessness shows up when asked to blitz -- he punishes backs in pass-protection -- and he bends well coming off the edge. Like many of the 'Bama linebackers before him, Evans is considered to be extremely tough.
Weaknesses: According to one NFC defensive coach, Evans may not be ready to take on "Mike" linebacker responsibilities right away at the NFL level. Teams looking for a ready-made field general will probably have to look elsewhere. Because playing on the inside is still relatively new to Evans -- he began his college career as a special-teamer and outside 'backer and had just two seasons inside -- his instincts improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but they still have room to grow. His aggressiveness in his pursuit upfield, while extremely fast, can cause him to lose leverage at times. How he'll handle coverage at the next level is still a question mark. Groin injuries limited him last season.
Patriots fit: Thanks to their Nick Saban connection, the Patriots will know exactly what they're getting in Evans. The question is, how will they try to use him? Are they looking for an off-the-line player in either a 3-4 or a 4-3? A big-hitter who can fly downhill? Then the fit feels like a good one. He would provide them with an aggressive run defender, an impact A-gap blitzer, and someone who could come off the edge in obvious passing situations. But are the Patriots looking for someone who can do more in coverage and be an extension of the coaching staff on the field? Then they may have to look elsewhere unless they're confident that, as a relative neophyte to the position, Evans has the traits to improve in those areas.