Before free-agency kicks off with the start of the new league year on March 14, we're answering a series of questions the Patriots could be asking themselves. On Wednesday, we hit on the tight end position and if Jimmy Graham may fit. Today we ask, is Super Bowl champ Nigel Bradham just the linebacker the Patriots need?
We live in a world where debate is probably embraced a little too tightly, but we can agree on this: The Patriots could use a boost at linebacker.
When Dont'a Hightower went down with a season-ending pec tear last fall, the Patriots did what they could to buttress that spot, relying mostly on a combination of Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Patrick Chung. While that worked for a large portion of the season -- particularly in the second half -- Super Bowl LII served as a wakeup call. The Eagles ran at will, and the Patriots had trouble sticking with backs and tight ends in coverage.
If Hightower comes back healthy, and if Van Noy and Roberts continue to improve in the system, and if Shea McClellin can give them something as an off-the-ball player. . . they may be OK. Especially since in the Patriots defense there's oftentimes only one true 'backer on the field.
But, as NBC Sports Boston Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran put it in his offseason overview at this spot, "what are the odds?"
Enter Bradham. Maybe.
A three-down player, at 28, who's shown to be effective against both the run and the pass. At 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, he has good enough size, and he has experience as a play-caller if the Patriots need him in that capacity. When Philly's Jordan Hicks hit injured reserve that season, Bradham took over green-dot duties.
The issue could be cost. Bradham is considered by many to be the best off-the-ball linebacker available, and he could earn somewhere in the $6-million-$7-million range per year. (Miami's Kiko Alonso received $7.2 million per year on a four-year deal last offseason when he signed as a 26-year-old.)
Others on the market at that spot include Avery Williamson (26 years old) of the Titans, Zach Brown (28) of the Redskins, NaVarro Bowman (29) of the Raiders and Preston Brown (25) of the Bills. There's also Flowers, who came on strong late in the year for the Patriots as an athletic quarterback spy and an option to cover backs out of the backfield. He generated some interest at the NFL Scouting Combine and could have a few offers when the new league year begins next week.
It's not a terrible class. There are options there.
Factor in that the off-the-ball position in this year's draft class looks healthy (SI.com has eight linebackers in its top-100, headlined by four potential first-rounders), and hitching your wagons to Bradham at a position where the injury rate is what it is...may not be worth the cost.
Adding an athletic weapon in the draft -- perhaps Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch at the bottom of the first round? -- may be New England's best bet. Once upon a time, they drafted Jerod Mayo and Hightower in the first round. Jamie Collins came via a second-round selection. The time is nigh to invest in a young talent there who can cover.
After that? Re-signing Flowers and hoping Hightower can stay healthy is a plan that feels like a better bet than spending on a veteran.
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