The Patriots did a major overhaul of their linebacker room in 2022.
Out went productive veterans like Donta Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. In -- and elevated -- were smaller, more versatile players who might not bring the same thump but could contribute speed. All the changes didn’t take perfectly.
But the mix of old-school linebacking style led by Ja’Whaun Bentley, the rise of Jahlani Tavai and the second-level help from safeties like Jabrill Peppers, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips helped the Patriots put together a solid 2022.
Bentley had his best season as a pro with 125 tackles in 17 games. He blitzed 51 times, according to Pro Football Reference. He was also on the field for 80 percent of the snaps. When the Patriots wanted extra beef, Tavai (who lists at 6-2, 250 pounds) was out there with Bentley. Tavai played 50 percent of the snaps and had no missed tackles along with 69 stops.
Anfernee Jennings still hasn’t come into his own. He’s seeming like the odd-man out with Tavai in the fold. He played all 17 games but just 20 percent of the snaps after it seemed during training camp he was in for an expanded role.
Mack Wilson, who came over from Cleveland in exchange for Chase Winovich, played just 21 percent of the snaps and missed eight tackles, according to Pro Football Reference. That’s a lot. He played more on special teams than on the regular defense. Raekwon McMillan, like Wilson, is more of a coverage rangy linebacker. He had his moments of production but was also in a limited role.
Of these three, I’d bet on McMillan making the biggest contributions going forward if he decides to stick around in free agency.
Curran's Patriots position resets: Quarterback | Wide receiver | Tight end | Running back | Offensive line
Ronnie Perkins, a third-round pick in 2021, landed on IR at the end of camp and didn’t play in 2022. His transition from college defensive end to outside linebacker in the NFL is coming slowly.
Also, a moment for Cam McGrone. A fifth-round pick who I thought was going to ascend in 2022? He didn’t. The Colts signed him off the Pats practice squad.
Bentley’s entering the last year of his deal and carries a modest $ 5 million cap number. Tavai signed an extension during the season and will be with the team through 2024 with a cap hits the next two seasons around $ 2.2 million. McMillan and Wilson are both entering free agency. Perkins and Jennings have cap hits of $ 1.3 million this year.
2.5 (scale 1-5)
The Bentley/Tavai/Jennings contingent brings the size. The team will want to make a run at retaining McMillan and/or Wilson given their roles on the defense and special teams. Worth noting as well that Peppers’ contract is up, too, so given his role at the linebacker level, the Patriots have moves to make at the “speed linebacker” spot.