Patriots

Patriots

The Patriots approach their pass-rush differently than most.

Instead of doling out money to high-priced one-on-one talents, they get after quarterbacks by scheming things up. They use twists and stunts to confuse protection plans and disrupt throws. They send rushers in waves via the blitz, trusting their coverage players to hold up their end of the bargain. 

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While the Patriots might not need an All-Pro to generate pressure on third down -- they finished seventh in the NFL in sacks and first in third-down defense despite not having a player with more than 7.0 sacks in 2019 -- they do require versatility and intelligence. Without those things, confounding a quarterback on the other side of the line of scrimmage becomes next to impossible.

That's why a few things will stand out as we reset the Patriots linebacker depth chart here. Multiple players have the ability to play both on the line and off. Multiple players have the skill sets to contribute in the running game, passing game, as pass-rushers and as special-teamers. Having interchangeable pieces is key to the Patriots operating as they did last season. 

It won't be easy to produce as the 2019 linebacker group did with both Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in the fold. But this system, Bill Belichick has shown in recent years, isn't reliant on front-seven stars. Rather, if the pieces fit together well enough, it can turn cast-offs and draft-day afterthoughts into big-money players.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Dont'a Hightower is the engine that makes this unit go. The Patriots have tried to get him on the edge more in the past to take advantage of his pass-rush ability, but he carries so much value as the brains in the middle of the defense -- the traffic cop who can steer multiple teammates in the right direction from snap to snap -- that he's typically smack dab at the center of things. With Van Noy gone, he may see more time on the edge. But with a couple of young players added to the formula here, it feels like we're destined to see Hightower's ability to communicate with everyone from the middle once again in 2020. 

 

John Simon and Chase Winovich look like they could be the starting outside linebackers in Belichick's 3-4 so lock them in as well. Then there are the rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, who look like they could eventually serve as Collins and Van Noy replacements. As second and third-round picks, respectively, they aren't going anywhere.  

ON THE BUBBLE

Ja'Whaun Bentley is probably closer to a "lock" than truly being "on the bubble." But if someone's not a true "lock" then by default they're kind of on the bubble. Right? The fifth-round pick from 2018 started that season in really promising fashion, playing key reps as a rookie off-the-ball 'backer. But he got hurt, missed the rest of the season, and then his role was diminished last year when the Patriots linebacker group was as deep as it's been in years. His experience in the system -- coupled with the departures of off-the-ball players like Collins and Elandon Roberts -- should have him in a key role again. But it likely won't just be handed to him. 

Another young player who once looked poised to make a play for a real role in Belichick's defense would be outside linebacker Derek Rivers. The third-round pick from 2017 has dealt with knee issues since his rookie camp. If healthy, he might provide some valuable athleticism off the edge following Van Noy's departure. But he's played just six games in three years -- all in 2018 -- and his roster spot is anything but locked in. 

Sixth-rounder Cassh Maluia looks like he's in the kind of spot Roberts was in as a rookie back in 2016. Can he contribute on special teams? Can he bring a toughness quotient to the defense that others can't? He seems to have those traits but will have to show them off in camp. 

Brandon Copeland and Shilique Calhoun are special-teamers with front-seven experience and will provide real serviceable depth, but neither has been guaranteed anything salary-wise so their spots can't be set in stone. Special-teamer Brandon King, coming off a season-ending injury in 2019, has to be included on this list as well.

LONG SHOTS

De'Jon Harris, a linebacker out of Arkansas, qualifies here by nature of his arrival to the team. But the total guarantees he received as part of his undrafted rookie deal with the Patriots come out to $140,000. That's more than any other UDFA on New England's roster. Listed at 5-foot-11, 234 pounds, he's undersized but was named an ALL-SEC choice last season and finished his college career with three consecutive 100-tackle seasons. That kind of production, in that conference, bodes well for his ability to stick. 

 

Other long shots include Tashawn Bower and Terez Hall -- two players on the Patriots practice squad last season -- and undrafted rookie Kyahva Tezino out of San Diego State. 

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Josh Uche's dynamic athleticism makes him the ultimate fit in Bill Belichick's amorphous defensive front. Want him to play off the edge, as he often did at Michigan? He has the explosiveness and flexibility to bend around tackles and close on quarterbacks. Want him off the ball? He has the sideline-to-sideline speed and size to do that, measuring in at 6-foot-1 and 241 pounds at this year's combine. Want him in coverage? He has the movement skills to be able to run with players much smaller. Want him to blitz? That may be the strongest point of his game, understanding how to work with his teammates on games and stunts -- much like the Patriots defense, which Michigan tried to emulate under defensive coordinator Don Brown -- to burst into backfields and wreak havoc. 

X-FACTOR

Chase Winovich could be in line for a significant uptick in his workload. As a rookie in 2019, he was extremely efficient. Per Boston Sports Info, a contributor to NBC Sports Boston's The Stats Corner, he was one of only two Patriots rookies under Belichick to record at least 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. The other? Chandler Jones in 2012. The difference, though was that Jones played over 60 percent of Patriots snaps that season while Winovich was a sub rusher who played less than 30 percent of his team's plays.

With Van Noy gone now, though, and no clear-cut replacement Winovich could be used in a more expansive role. Can he hold up against the run? Can he provide the same type of production if he's more of a three-down player in Year 2? The Patriots should get help on the edge from Jennings, Uche and Hightower, but if they're looking for a one-for-one swap for Van Noy as a starting every-down outside linebacker, Winovich might be the team's best bet. How he performs opposite returning starting outside linebacker John Simon (13 starts in 2019) could go a long way in determining the overall effectiveness of this front-seven unit in 2020.