Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.
As the Patriots rolled to one of their best defensive seasons under Bill Belichick, their linebacker group was as deep as it had been in years. So deep was this spot that Belichick and his staff opted to roll with a 3-4 scheme — deploying more 'backers at one time — after having adopted more 4-3 fronts in recent years.
The leader of this group, Dont'a Hightower, will be back. But with some critical pieces set to hit free-agency, there could be another schematic shift ahead should this unit thin out ahead of 2020.
Dont'a Hightower: Hightower played in all but one game in 2019 and served a critical role as the signal-caller. With an ability to play both at the end of the line of scrimmage and off the line in the middle of the defense, Hightower's football IQ and versatility will make him one of the most valuable players on this side of the ball in 2020. He's going into a contract year.
Kyle Van Noy: One of the big-ticket free agents the Patriots could see depart this offseason, Van Noy is coming off of a career year. He had 6.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus ranks him as its fifth-best edge defender on the market and project that he could earn over $10 million per year on his next deal. The Patriots haven't paid top dollar to edge defenders in the past — Chandler Jones and Trey Flowers are both playing elsewhere — but Van Noy can play off the line and provides Bill Belichick's fronts some flexibility.
Jamie Collins: Another free agent from this group, Collins ended up playing off the line of scrimmage more than he served as an edge defender. Getting him in space and allowing him to use his athleticism in coverage and as a blitzer suited his skill set. When the Patriots got gashed against the run against the Titans and Ravens last season, though, Collins was often on the scene. He's PFF's No. 3 off-ball linebacker on the open market. Do teams around the league view him as the disruptive passing-game player he was in 2019? Or is he the player they saw in Cleveland who needed a career revival in Foxboro last season? The Patriots could look to bring him back if he's not going to break the bank elsewhere.
John Simon: The Patriots could get out from under having to pay Simon in 2020 since releasing him would cost them only $375,000 and save them about $2 million in cap space. But would they? Bill Belichick praised his effort and consistency throughout the season, and his role increased as the season went on. After not cracking 30 snaps in three of the team's first five games, he hit 30 or more in seven of his last nine. He's going into a contract year.
Chase Winovich: Outside of punter Jake Bailey, Winovich ended up being New England's most productive rookie. Used as a situational pass-rusher, he was in on seven sacks. He also recorded three quarterback hits and 13 hurries. Should Van Noy move on, the Patriots could look to Winovich to increase his role and add more first and second-down duties to his list of responsibilities.
Ja'Whaun Bentley: Though Bentley played in all 17 games for the Patriots this year, he did so in a reserve role. After a promising rookie year in 2018, during which it appeared he was primed to be a starter, perhaps no player's playing time was more significantly impacted by Collins' addition. If Collins were to depart via free agency — or if this group experiences more injuries in 2020 — he could be in line for more work. He has two years remaining on his rookie deal.
Shilique Calhoun: Another in a long list of outside linebackers coached by Demarcus Covington last year, Calhoun ended up having a greater special teams role than he did on defense. He played 55 defensive snaps in the season opener, but just two in the Wild Card Round. He's set to become a free agent this offseason.
Elandon Roberts: Another free agent set to hit the market, Roberts' case is a fascinating one. He was a captain in 2019 for the first time. He provides a measure of toughness that Belichick appreciates. And he showed a willingness to take on a never-before-seen role mid-season when he was given fullback duties. Will that profile be worth more to another team than the Patriots? Or will they want him back if they appreciated how he handled an unusual contract year?
POTENTIAL FREE-AGENT FIXES
Jordan Jenkins: Van Noy, because of his ability to play both the run and the pass, might be New England's best option if they feel they need to come away from this offseason with an experienced outside linebacker. Other big-name options — Jadeveon Clowney, Shaq Barrett, Yannick Ngakoue — may end up being even more expensive while lacking Van Noy's experience in the system.
A more cost-effective piece who could potentially slide in? Jordan Jenkins, who has been with the Jets since 2016. The Patriots showed interest in Jenkins, a Georgia product, prior to that year's draft. A team captain for the Bulldogs, the 6-foot-2, 260-pounder has long arms (34 inches) and massive hands (11 inches). He's stout enough to play the run, and he checked in with 8.0 sacks last season.
De'Vondre Campbell: If the Patriots want an off-the-ball type to guard against the potential losses of Collins and Roberts, Campbell is an intriguing talent. A fourth-round pick of the Falcons in 2016, he's not quite as heavy as the Patriots usually like their off-the-ball linebackers — he checks in at 6-foot-4, 232 pounds — but he's a superb athlete who can cover backs and tight ends. He led the Falcons in tackles with 129 last season.
If the Patriots wanted to go smaller and faster with a familiar face, Kamu Grugier-Hill (drafted by the Patriots in 2016) is available after spending the early portion of his career with the Eagles. He'd be an immediate special teams stalwart. If the Patriots wanted to go bigger and burlier in the middle of the field on early downs, former Bills and Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland (a second-round pick out of Nick Saban's program in Alabama in 2016) is also a free agent.