Patriots

Patriots Roster Reset: Which linebackers will rise to the occasion?

Patriots Roster Reset: Which linebackers will rise to the occasion?

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. 

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

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. 

Listen and subscribe to the Next Pats Podcast:

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

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.

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

How Julian Edelman let Cam Newton know about Patriots' complex playbook

Remember when Cam Newton jokingly compared the Patriots' playbook to "calculus" after signing with New England last month?

Turns out that wasn't his own assessment. (Not yet, anyway.)

Rather, it was Julian Edelman who made Newton aware of what he was dealing when the quarterback called his new Patriots wide receiver for the first time.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

"We were both excited just to be on the phone with each other," Newton told reporters Friday in a video conference. "Then all of a sudden he just said, 'Hey bro, this (explicit) is calculus.'

"He said it and it was just funny. From that whole 15-minute conversation, that's the only thing that I just remembered: Calculus."

The Patriots playbook that Tom Brady spent 20 years mastering is notoriously complex and has stumped talented veterans like Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Wayne. Edelman has dealt with that playbook for a whole decade, so it's no wonder his comparison stuck with Newton.

Not that the 31-year-old QB is intimidated by learning a challenging offense after nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

"At the end of the day, football is still football and you just can’t make too much on it than what it already is,” Newton said of the playbook. "(Offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) has been there every step of the way as well as (quarterbacks) coach Jedd (Fisch). Just been hammering away. All the quarterbacks have been trying to learn this whole system from what it is."

Newton admittedly faces a tall task picking up the Patriots' offense in short order without the benefit of the on-field workouts of a traditional training camp.

The three-time Pro Bowler has his means of getting up to speed, though: Newton is a "visual learner" who famously relied on a large three-ring binder in Carolina stuffed with notes on the Panthers' offense.

"We all have our different methods of how we (learn) and go about different ways to retain as much information as possible,” Newton said. "I don’t think the binder is actually here, but some type of retention methods have adapted towards New England."

Newton has a few more weeks to study, but his first test -- the Patriots' 2020 season opener against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 -- is rapidly approaching.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

Josh McDaniels wouldn’t trade his time with Tom Brady for anything.

But the Patriots offensive coordinator did point out Friday that those times Brady wasn’t at his disposal are very valuable right now as the Patriots offense does its post-Brady pivot.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had when I didn’t have Tom,” McDaniels said on a video conference call. “Believe me, no one was happier to have him out there when he was out there for all the years I was fortunate to coach him.

"But I would say I did have some experience with the Matt Cassel year (in 2008), which I learned a lot about how to tailor something to somebody else’s strengths, we had to play that four-game stretch (in 2016) with Jacoby (Brissett) and Jimmy (Garoppolo), I thought that was helpful. And I was away for three years. So trying to really adapt … it’s not changing your system, it’s adapting your system to the talents and strengths of your players.”

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

How will the Patriots offense change now that Brady’s gone has been a dominant topic of discussion this offseason. The six-time Super Bowl winners' strengths are well-documented and hard to replicate – absurd accuracy, poise, pocket-presence and the ability to decipher and manipulate defenses at will. Part of the reason they’re hard to replicate is that it took him a dozen years of monkish devotion to get where he was. Nobody’s got time for that.

So, after a couple of decades building a tower out of wooden blocks, the blocks are knocked down and scattered. And McDaniels starts building again. Same blocks. Different-looking structure.  

“(We need to) adapt (the offense) to the players that we have,” said McDaniels. “So, again, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Do I really want us to be good at this? Or are we good at this?’ There’s a fine line between really pushing hard to keep working at something that you’re just not showing much progress in vs. ‘Hey, you know what, we’re a lot better at A, B and C then we are D, E and F, why don’t we just do more A, B and C?” I think as a staff we’ve really had a lot of conversations about those kinds of things.”

McDaniels has discussed in past seasons how developing an offense is a trial-and-error process. The difference this year is there is no chance for the “trial” portion. No joint practices. No preseason games. Obviously, no OTAs or minicamps.

“We can’t make any declarations about what we’re good at yet because we haven’t practiced,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I think everybody’s chomping at the bit, eager to get out there and start to make a few decisions about some things that we want to try to get good at, and if we’re just not making a lot of progress then we just have to shift gears and go in a different direction.

“But I’m going to lean on my experience and then I’m going to lean on the staff, coach Belichick, just to, (say), ‘Let’s be real with ourselves. Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not doing so hot at it so let’s just scrap it for now and move in a different direction.”

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Obviously, a direction they’ll move in will most likely be powered by the mobility of whoever the starting quarterback is, Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton.

McDaniels pointed out that a player with the size, power and mobility of Newton does change things.

“It’s certainly not something I’m accustomed to using a great deal but you use whatever the strengths of your players that are on the field allow you to use, to try to move the ball and score points,” he said. “So whatever that means relative to mobility at the QB position, size and power, quickness, length, height with receivers … you go through the same thing many different times.”

Newton, said McDaniels, is the same as any other player who brings a unique talent.  

“I remember when you get a new receiver group … our receivers have changed quite a bit in terms of some of them were bigger … Randy Moss was a bigger guy and then we’ve had some smaller guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, and then you have tight ends that are more fast straight-line players and then you have guys like Gronk and those kinds of players,” he pointed out.

“Regardless of what the position is, I think you try to use their strengths to allow them to make good plays and if that’s something we can figure out how to do well and get comfortable doing and feel like we can move the ball and be productive then we’re going to work as a staff to figure out how that works best, and try to utilize it if we can.”

In other words, when you have a player with a superpower - Moss' speed, Welker's quickness, Gronk's size, Brady's brain, Newton's power - , you tap into said superpower. ASAFP.